Saturday, March 29, 2008

Anthony and His Tomato Seeds

Night before last I was in the retreat house and sitting with Father Anthony, at the kitchen table. He held in his hand a small plastic bag, with a picture on it of a bright red tomato. I asked him what was in the bag and he smiled and said “Seeds, tomato seeds. They have been in the freezer.” He went on to say that given the right conditions of sun, soil, and water, they will grow. He did not mention himself in the process. Soon, he will carry the seeds to his garden and they will indeed respond from their frozen sleep when the conditions are right.

Brother Michael read another passage about seeds in this morning’s second reading at Vigils.

And we know how fond Jesus was in comparing the Kingdom and the power of God to a seed, a mustard seed. From the smallest of things come wonders.

This morning’s gospel is a brief recapitulation of this week’s readings. We hear again about the appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the eleven gathered at a table. The appearances are rich in meaning – Jesus is revealed through the calling of a name, in the breaking of bread. In other accounts, Jesus promises that where two or three are gathered, he is there with them. He presences himself in the weak, the poor and the hungry, the strong and the satisfied. Indeed, there is no where and no one from which he is absent. His presence is the sacrament permeating all creation.

He admonishes the disciples for their unbelief – they are stubborn in their lack of belief in those who conveyed the good news of his resurrected presence.

All the things said by Jesus about where he is still speak to us. His words of stubbornness may apply to us as well, in varying degrees. We can easily want to reduce the presence of the Lord to this or that way of thinking, seeing, believing, loving, remembering. It seems to be a long-standing human problem to situate the divine in one place or another. We are reminded again this morning that there is no meal, no gathering, and no naming in love from which he is absent. His call to each of us is to broaden our vision and expand our hearts to trust his living presence in everything and everyone.

Anthony will soon take a packet of seeds and sow them in his garden. In doing so, he will allow to come into play the wonders of growth, of a power that comes from the distant sun, from the intimate nearness of soil and rain. With the right temperature and care, there will be growth. He held the seeds in his hand – as God holds us in his hands, with the same kind of loving power.

God has sowed his spirit, his very life, through all of creation. Perhaps we are asked to see that we grow at different rates, given the variation of our lives and capacities for growth and possibility. We see things differently. We respond to things differently. But as we gather this morning, we should, I think, ponder our own capacities for stubbornness. Jesus asks us again to respond to his presence in the unfolding mystery of this Saturday, in our sharing of food, our planting of seeds, our calling each other by name, our walks with each other along the roads of this monastery.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Amelia and a Second Look

A friend of mine was here at Mass on Easter Sunday morning. Her name is Amelia. She is a photographer and her photos, many of which are of the monastery, are beautiful. We chatted for a while and she told me that for most of her life, she looked at things but never really saw them. It was not until she got her first camera that she began to see everything and everyone about her in a different way. “Not that they had changed – the beauty was always there,” she said. “I had just never seen it before. Now everything is different – the human face, a chair, a door, a road.”

Life does not arrive with a commonly shared meaning. Interpretations range from the bland to the mystical. Human responses provoke misery or usher in joy. We do share a common road that is life, but how differently many of us walk it.

As Christians, we profess a common faith and so walk a common road. But at a close inspection at what is at our feet, we stumble as well in trying to walk through life with each other in peace. Christianity is no stranger to inner divisions that have pitted believers against each other to this very day.

Everything we know invites a second look.

In the recent issue of Time Magazine there is a photograph of the Dalai Lama, prostrate on the floor of his study. The caption to the photograph states that it was taken during his morning prayer to the Buddha – a prayer he makes every morning. So it is that someone from the East lays down, seeking God. Perhaps Buddhism, with a second look, is not as godless as some would make it to be.

Recently a Saudi Arabian sheik declared that he would do his best to establish ecumenical dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews in his country, for, as he stated, the times are in desperate need for people of different faiths to live peaceably. Tensions, bloodshed and violence, all carried out in the name of religion, are causing him and others to take a second look at the meaning of God and the human person.

We live in times when the road beneath us is widening – there is more room for those of different approaches to God, to history, to what it means to be human. We must learn to walk with them.

Amelia told me that life has more beauty than she ever imagined and she uses a lens to capture it. And she captures it well. Her life is one taken aback by a second look.

Jesus tells two men about the meaning of Scripture while walking on a road. They do not recognize him until the breaking of bread, and then he vanishes from their midst and, as we believe, their hearts are filled with joy because they will always have the bread, bread to share, bread to keep his presence.

Our times prompt among many of good will a second look at long held religious traditions. With the lens of faith, we are asked to look anew at the road of life and to trust the Lord who lives in bread, in human friendship, in human hope. We look to our right and are learning to welcome and learn from the Buddhists. We look to our left, and a Moslem approaches us in peace. Each prompts more than a second look at the sources we have to understand and welcome them. But they are looking too, their hearts burning, knowing that the possibility of divinely given peace is just ahead, perhaps out of visible sight, but as real as the Lord who is encouraging them to walk nearer to us that we all may find him, with a second look.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Adele Lerner

Understanding is a gift that most of us probably take for granted. We make use of it all the time – it functions quite automatically without our having to think much about it. There are some scholars who have made a lifetime study of human understanding, most notably in our own tradition Bernard Lonergan. To plumb the depths of his writing is difficult. It is also ironical because you use the very gift he is writing about when you try to understand what he is suggesting about your ability to see, grasp, come to terms with and know.

For most of us, we get through our days using understanding without thinking about it. But when you do think about it, two things, among others, can be said. Understanding takes time. And understanding is a collaborative effort. We need time to let things sink in. And no one comes to understanding anything alone. We need others.

Mrs. Adele Lerner is one-hundred and one years old and she lives in New York City. She recently had her first exhibit of her oil paintings. She did not pick up a brush until her sixtieth birthday, when her husband gave her a painting set as a gift. She calls herself a late-bloomer and that the gift wound up sustaining her through the loneliness after her husband’s death, thirty years ago. “I am a very slow learner,” she said. “ I learn at my own pace. I feel that it is never too late. If you don’t know something, go and try and learn it every day until it comes to you.”

In a sense, Manhattan and all its beauty came to her through the years. She saw things, many things, and painted them. One of her paintings shows a former synagogue converted to a church.. In the painting, its Star of David peeks out behind a cross and the words “Jesus saves.” It strikes me as an image as to how God sees us and how he would like us to see each other. A beautiful blend of color, traditions and ways to God. Perhaps it is easier to do on canvas than in and through human life. But I feel that some artists paint what we may someday be.

We have a gospel this morning, a story about Mary as she wept, and then took a second look into the tomb. The story unfolds and she is moved by Jesus from pain to recognition and then joy. A few sentences in which she moves to a new way of seeing, loving, hoping. Jesus spoke her name, and she saw who he really was. We can assume, I think, that it would take more time for her to understand, at least in part, what had been given to her by Jesus.

It takes us time, too, to see, to hear, to look at life and each other with the sight afforded by faith and love. We need each other for that in this community of faith. And we need to give each other the time to come closer to the Lord who stands in our midst and calls us by name to see life in a new, loving way.

The responsorial psalm this morning is “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.” It is that fullness that we are asked to see and believe and love. I like to think that everyone has a gift that can help us see the meaning of that psalm bloom in life. An old woman’s slow moving hand across a canvas, a kind word to lift one’s spirits, a visit to a sick monk, these and more – bits of living color to the as yet unfinished canvas of God.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Maria in the Morning

It was very early in the morning, in the town where I grew up. I was there not long ago to give a mission in my home parish and was staying in the rectory. I woke early each morning and headed downstairs to write at the large dining room table.

On my first morning there, I was writing and heard the back door open. It was before sunrise. After a few minutes passed, I heard the shuffling of grocery bags. It was Maria, the cook. I had met her the day before. She is from Poland. She started to sing, very softly, a Polish song and I can still hear the sweet rise and fall of her voice. I liked the melody but could not understand a word of it. In the stillness of that morning, everything seemed raised in an atmosphere of joy to her singing. It was not long before I could hear the birds outside and they, too, were welcoming the morning with their melodic choruses. I was there for five or six mornings and Maria sang her way through every one of them.

I do not understand why that memory seems singled out for me. I had a lot of conversations with people those few days and saw people and places I had not seen in years. Yet, whenever I think back on the brief time I spent there, I may hold a while a memory of this or that place or person, but then there is Maria and her morning song.

One morning, she told me that she heard that I grew up there, but moved away. I told her yes, that I spent most of my youth in that town. “I come from far away, too,” she said. “But my home is here now. People are good here, too, like home. Are people good where you are? It is good to have good people. They make you home again.”

And so she spoke, and sang, and I remember her with a lot of affection but do not really understand why. She was like a gift each morning and when I was writing this, I felt badly that I did not tell her as much.

Our gospel this morning starts out with another early morning experience. It is strange – the last sentence tells us that the two disciples believed but did not understand. It is not clear as to whether they believed that the body was taken, or that Jesus had really risen. It is stated that they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

We know, we believe, that because of the Easter event on an early morning long ago, everything is different. We gather this morning, being offered a hope from God beyond what we can understand. We can only ponder the gift of eternal life given us through the risen Jesus and take it to heart – and to each other – as best we can. We will soon be asked to renew our promises to love God and each other. The prayers this morning voice our need to be refreshed, rekindled, with the love we need to know life and live it.

Maria spoke of goodness, and feeling at home, and she sang with joy every morning. She spoke of coming from far away and learning that goodness really makes a home.

The disciples were to gradually learn that the risen Jesus lived in them. He was their life and ours. There is no life apart from him. We may not understand that, as we may well not understand the enormity of this gift of life, eternal life. But it speaks to us everywhere and especially in the stillness of the morning, when we light a fire, and there is a song of joy, and all that is lastingly good from a far away place shines once again in the darkness. The gift of God’s love comes into us, making of us his home, making us good.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Triduum

All over the world, Christians are remembering and re-enacting the last three days of the life of Jesus. It is called the Triduum. Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday each have a special service to commemorate the events leading up to the Resurrection. I am not a scholar of religion, but I know that other great and small religious traditions also have high holy days when their aspirants reenact the ways of God in this world. Christianity is not unique in its attempt to ritualize and therefore remember the presence of God among us.

I have read that it is best to probe deeply into one’s own tradition so as to best understand its riches. If people are not satisfied with the tradition into which they were born, it is possible that they have not taken the effort or the time to savor its tradition, its depth. All religious traditions run like deep rivers through the many landscapes of history. Each offer possibilities of goodness, grace and hope for those who drink from and live near their waters.

These three days always give me pause to ponder the mystery of one life, that of Jesus, and what it has to do with us. He called upon people to drastically expand their horizons and in doing so provoked anger from those who would not let go of the familiar, the prejudicial, the places that power had afforded them.

We are all familiar with the story.

We are, as well, all familiar with the closing chapter – that of Easter.

But it seems to me that we somehow experience the meaning of the Triduum more so than we do Easter. We do not yet live fully resurrected lives. I do, however, think that we already share in part in the grace of that long ago morning.

These three days touch deeply on many traits that are common to us all. There is the prelude of Palm Sunday, which sets the stage for the Triduum. Jesus is greeted with joy and alleluias galore by people who will soon turn upon him and call for his death. Holy Thursday calls to mind the Last Supper, the intimate gathering of Jesus with his disciples and the unfolding of the plot by Judas to betray him for thirty pieces of silver. Good Friday is a day of violence, dashed hopes, betrayal and death. On Holy Saturday, the Creator will sleep in death, laid to rest in a tomb by those who loved him and who hoped he would never leave them. The readings give a sense that the world fell into darkness with the absence of Jesus.

Easter is not ours to truly yet know. As I write this, there are accounts of more violence all over the world. People are routinely blowing up themselves and others. Numerous places are torn by violence. We long for peace and yet we do not know how to make it come about.

We are encouraged to look to Sunday for our definitive hope. But I think we are as well encouraged by the events of the Triduum to look at our Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays as these are living symbols of ordinary life as we know it, with all its joys and sorrows, promises and betrayals, peacemaking and violence. The mystery that is Easter shines on each and effort that we have at our disposal, in the seeming ordinariness of our lives, to live and act with hope. We all fail. We all know denial. We all greet good days with joy and renounce and avoid as best we can those days when troubles far outweigh the joys. This life is our journey, our Triduum. Our hope is that someone went through it all and rose from it and came back, is here, is with us. That is, I think, the real meaning of these days. No road in life is away from God, for he lives on every one of them. We are asked to walk together through our days, and to be of comfort and strength to each other despite our weaknesses and our refusal at times to embrace the good.

Someone came to us with a light and way of loving far more powerful than our own. And he shared that with us that we might have hope. To live the mystery that is Easter Sunday is to persevere through these three dark days, when it seemed that all was lost but through which everything was ultimately found.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

This is the cover of my most recent book, published by ACTA Publications in Chicago. It is selling well and I am real happy with it. There are many photographs which I took here at the monastery, as well as a brief essay accompanying each photo.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Off the Highway

Off the Highway

There is a small restaurant, one of a vast chain called “Huddle House” restaurants, in Alabama. I was driving along the Interstate and was hungry and I pulled off the highway, parked the car and headed inside. I sat at the counter. It was a small, friendly place. People nodded to me and smiled as I sat down. I nodded back. I placed my order – the waitress was a thin blond woman and I guessed her to be in her fifties. A young woman came into the restaurant and stood next to me, waiting to talk to the waitress. She was about seventeen years old. She was dressed in what looked to be a brand new “Huddle House” uniform, identical to those that the other women and men were wearing – a red top, black pants, red hat. She and the older waitress chatted for a moment and it was the young woman’s first day at work. The older woman assured her that things would be okay, that there would be someone helping her, especially when the place got very busy. So, she told her, there was nothing to worry about. She then took out a piece of paper from her pocket and wrote down her name and phone number. “My name is Nellie,” she said. “I live just around the corner and if you need any help at all, you just call me and I will come right over. You hear? It is no problem at all. Do not think for a second that you are bothering me. I am only too glad to help.”

The young woman took the piece of paper, folded it and put it in her pocket. “You make me feel at home already,” she said. And Nellie looked at her and smiled and said, “I was where you were once and I remembered the kindness of people when I was starting out. You remember – and just do the same some day.”

I listened. And I thought. Maybe, I thought to myself, that I listen to such conversations and read more into them than they mean. Perhaps I should just let it go, but the scene and the words seemed to be nudging me to remember something.

I have read a lot about God. I am what might be called a professional religious since I am a priest, live in the monastery, and am immersed in language, symbols, references to God and the holy seven days a week for every week of the year. Well, perhaps I should qualify that – there are occasional trips home to see my mom, who is not well, and therefore I get hungry when I drive and find places like the Huddle House. And I cannot help it if I hear what is being said – after all, the women were so close to me. As close as these words are to you.

I got back in the car and headed east, toward Atlanta, and, with the waitresses in mind, another image came to me almost as fresh as the one I was just leaving behind. A few days earlier I was in a restaurant near my mom’s place. I go there early and was the only one in the large dining area. The waitress came over and took my order and when she took the menu back from me I noticed that she was missing all of the fingers on her left hand. I watched as she walked away. I watched as she arranged some napkins and utensils on another table. I watched as another waitress came over to her and said that she would be just around the corner if she needed help carrying anything. The waitress with no fingers smiled and said, “I think I will be okay – but I will give you a holler if I need help.”

It is hard for me to place into some kind of a coherent conversation what it is I know to be of my monastic life, with all its religious finery – and the easy, raw and available beauty that people speak to each other every day. The instances I saw on my little road trip were words of availability – people going out of their way to be of help. In once living vignette it was an offer to help a newcomer, a stranger. In the other, a woman knew the need of another woman who had no fingers and who could not carry things like most of us full fingered people do.

I suppose that the difficulty I experience in my wonderment about this life and the life of the road is that people often come here to the monastery to find a sense of God. I leave here, driving along roads and getting hungry, and listen and see. And somehow I believe that God speaks sort of anonymously but yet as clear as a bell. I pull off roads and find that I am dining with religious revelation, even though there is no cloister in the Huddle House and no altar in the restaurant near my mom’s place.

My life as a monk is good. I think that I need to parameters of this place to help me situate a sense of God.

Yet when I am driving, heading east to the monastery, I cannot forget what I heard and saw just a few miles west.

We are all born with something missing – be it fingers, a decent chance at life, a strong or willing heart, a sense of meaning. And we all are strangers at one time, one place, or another. It seems to take me a bit of hunger and a turn off any familiar road to rediscover what a monastery, or a restaurant, or a church or office or home are all about.

God lives and travels through each of us. No one person has or lives a full sense of God. Each of us is part of the living road toward God. God is the destination and God is the way. We are all aware of such in different and varying degrees. I have this place, set apart to ponder the many roads of life. And I am grateful for it. But I am as well thankful for the hungers in life that make me turn in different ways, seeking God, seeking food, and finding his presence all along the way.

Pulling off the familiar can seem to slow us down. But I find that in that stillness, I am sometimes given the opportunity to refresh myself and to pick up the journey again, knowing that I experienced something good, just a bit a bit back East.