Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Luke 12:32-48

This lengthy Gospel text from St Luke could almost be a manifesto for monastic life. I hear in every paragraph strong resonances with the Rule of St Benedict.

‘Sell your possessions and give alms.’

As I prepared to enter the monastery I went through several phases of divesting myself of my ‘worldly goods’. Most of my worldly good were clothes and shoes. One day I invited my friends round and opened up my wardrobes, inviting them to take whatever they wanted. It felt hugely liberating. In case you are now in awe of my ascesis, it’s probably best to explain that after 30 years in a monastery I have probably accumulated roughly the same amount that I gave away. I’m no minimalist.

‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’

It’s very easy to read this text just as a warning about having too many possessions. However, the word that I always hear loudly is ‘treasure’. Treasure can be a subtle thing: what I treasure you, might not treasure. What I might hide away in order to keep safe, you might not even notice. I’m reminded here of St Cuthbert’s account of the death of Bede. As Bede’s death approaches he makes this request:

‘I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper, and napkins, and some incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of the monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me.’

Each year I wonder what my ‘treasures’ are now, what do I keep in a safe place? I also wonder what I will consider ‘treasure’ when my life nears its end. In monastic culture it’s often the little things that make their mark on us. Monastic writers talk of poverty and simplicity and the importance of non-attachment to ‘things’. The lived reality is far more complex. Each day I have the opportunity to evaluate my choices and to steer that careful path between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Perhaps the key thing here is not so much how much or how little you have, but how willing you are to share.

‘See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit.’

This text forms the basis of one of my favourite Antiphons in Advent. I love the dynamism and sense of expectancy. For the monks of St Benedict’s day their way of life allowed them to take this text more or less literally:

They sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep. Thus the monks will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum.

Rule of St Benedict, Ch 22, The Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks

On one level the monks weren’t doing anything unusual in sleeping clothed. Having special nightwear was not part of Sixth Century custom. St Benedict takes an ordinary thing and gives it a special significance; being ready for the Work of God was the priority in St Benedict’s thinking. Every thing is the monastic’s day is so arranged so as make sure that the liturgy takes priority.

All of the above quotations have something to say to us about how we prioritise things in our lives. They have something to say about how we open our hearts to God. I hear the texts in a particular way because of my monastic path. How do you hear these texts?

How is God calling you open your heart?

Transfiguration

Above is the Canticle that we use for Vespers of the Transfiguration. It cleverly blends together a text from the New Testament and a text from the Old Testament. These texts are woven together seamlessly, with each shedding light on the other.

The composite text captures something of the feast of the Transfiguration. We move from the Incarnation to the God of all creation. It is almost as if we see one super-imposed upon the other. In the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration there is a mingling of earth and heaven, old and new, prophet and disciple.  God’s faithfulness runs as a thread through the Old Testament and here on Mt Tabor that faithfulness is manifested in the transfigured Christ.

That this powerful experience takes place on a mountain should perhaps come as no surprise to the disciples. Indeed, from the beginning of history human beings have been aware of what we can call the existence of a ‘spiritual landscape’. Most fundamentally, God is ‘up’ and the evil one is ‘down’. God or the gods live on mountains and the evil one lives somewhere down in the depths of the earth. Human beings have always sought ways of connecting with the deity, of being relationship with the deity. Our ancestors developed ritual behaviours which were designed either to appease the wrath of the deity or to procure favour. Certain places became significant as meeting places with the deity.

The account of the Transfiguration is a mysterious text and one that isn’t always easy to understand. The words of the Canticle ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion’ resonate with me particularly on this feast. When we celebrate the liturgy and hear the Gospel text we are given a glimpse of glory. And like the disciples, we too must come down from the mountain. Our task now is to look for those glimpses of glory wherever we are. And the more ordinary the place we find ourselves in the better.

Poet, Malcolm Guite, captures the mystery at the heart of the feast.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Luke 12:13-21

Scholars tell us that in the time of Jesus 90% of people relied on the agricultural economy for their survival. The well being of your family depended on the well being and right use of the land. Many were tenant farmers who lived with the pressure of the landowner’s expectation of the biggest yield possible.

And yet, in our parable today this big yield is not to be celebrated. We are confronted instead with the rich man’s greed. His desire to store this yield is seen as short-sighted. In his master plan of tearing down barns and building bigger he has missed the point of human existence. In the language of the Psalms ‘he has no regard for God.’ His greed has paved the way for the last plan he will ever make.

The hearers of Luke’s Gospel lived with the expectation that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. Every choice had an implication for that day of judgement. The message is clear: don’t be like the rich man. Parables are intended to shock us and to jolt us. If you are left slightly uncomfortable by this text, then it has done it’s work. Parables are not nice stories.

It’s a fairly easy leap from this parable to words about the dangers of amassing wealth, the scandal of inequality and the perils of a consumerist society. These are all important areas. But what if we look inward and ask ourselves ‘What am I willing to tear down in order to build bigger barns?’, ‘What is it that blinds me to my need for God?’

We can expect to be unsettled as we answer these questions. Our ancestors in the faith grappled with these questions too and from this place they sang: ‘O Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to the next.’

How can you make God your refuge this week?

Martha, Mary and Lazarus

Today the Church keeps the Memoria of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It’s a day that holds special significance for Benedictines. There are two collects given for Mass in a supplementary book which is used for all things Benedictine.

Heavenly Father,
your Son was received
as an honoured and welcomed guest
in the home of Bethany,
keep us close to the Master
in our work and prayer,
that, blameless in his sight,
he may welcome us into his kingdom.

Heavenly Father,
your Son called Lazarus from the grave
and sat at table in the house of Bethany.
May we serve him faithfully in our brethren
and with Mary ponder and feed upon his word.

Between these two collects pretty much all the distinctive elements of Benedictine life are covered. Two phrases stand out for me: ‘honoured and welcomed’ and ‘ponder and feed’. If you have read anything about Benedictine Spirituality you will have a sense of the place which hospitality holds. I was struck today that it is more than just welcoming, it is showing a very particular kind of care, a care that reverences Christ in anyone who crosses the threshold. Ideally we take this attitude with us when we leave the monastery. So this honouring and welcoming can take place wherever we are: in the queue in the supermarket, waiting for the lift, crossing the road. The list is endless.

In the second collect I was struck by the coupling of ponder and feed. We are familiar with the idea of pondering on God’s Word, perhaps a little less so with the image of feeding on the Word. St Bernard explores this image in an Advent sermon:

Keep the word of God in the same way as you would preserve bodily food. For the word of God is a living bread and food for the mind. So long as earthly food is stored in a box it can be stolen or nibbled by mice or it can go bad if it is left too long. But if you eat the food you don’t have to worry about any of these.

This is the way to preserve God’s word; Blessed are they who keep it (Lk 11:28) Let it pass into the innards of your soul, then let it make its way into your feelings and into your behaviour. Eat well and your soul will delight in the abundance. Do not forget to eat your bread, lest your heart dry up, but let your soul be filled as with a banquet (Ps 101:5, Ps 62:6) If you thus keep the Word of God, you can be quite sure that it will keep you.

Sometimes the bread of God’s Word can seem dry and hard, sometimes is it light and sweet. Refusing to eat is not an option.

The image of friendship presented in the texts which mention Mary, Mary and Lazarus is not saccharine but real. The daily reality of walking the monastic path is anything but romantic. Sometimes there will be disagreements. This is brought out beautifully in an Anglican collect that I found:

God our Father,
whose Son enjoyed the love of his friends,
Mary, Mary and Lazarus,
in learning, argument and hospitality:
may we so rejoice in your love
that the world may come to know
the depths of your wisdom, the wonder of your compassion,
and your power to bring life out of death.

Sometimes arguments will be part of our path. Strong friendships can take the rough with the smooth. Martha, Mary and Lazarus incarnate for us this real friendship.

Bring to mind the friends who have shared your journey. Thank God for these people.

Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Luke 11:1-13

‘Ask, and it will be given to you’

Asking for things in prayer is perhaps one of the first things we learn on our faith journey. In the Primary classroom if you set the children the task of writing a prayer the results will almost always be prayers of petition. There will be prayers for their families, their pets, perhaps for a world event, and then something which can seem completely random. I learnt a good deal about the heart of child from reading these prayers.

 ‘search, and you will find…’

As adults we probably spend more time than we realise searching for physical things that we have misplaced. In recent years I have found myself adding digital searching to my regular searching activities. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting to bookmark that excellent article or brilliant hack. There’s always a part of my brain that just wont give up until I have found what I need.

For St Benedict the search for God is as ardent as our search for things that we have lost. There’s a terrific dynamism to the way he expresses this in the Prologue to his Rule:

‘As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commands, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his Kingdom.’

The search for God is all encompassing.

‘knock, and the door will be opened to you.’

From time to time our Bidding prayers in our monastic oratory include a prayer for those who are ‘unable to knock.’ It strikes me that sometimes we can struggle to find the door and the courage to knock. We aren’t always convinced that the door will be opened.

When I hear this text I’m always conscious of those in my life who, without realising it, have somehow made it a little easier for me to ask, search and knock. Sometimes it has been by their example. Sometimes is has been a chance word or conversation.

Are there people in your own life who have made it easier for you to ask, search and knock? Thank God for those people.

Feast of St Mary Magdalene

John 20:1-2,11-18

I recently read an article about Pope Francis where the writer talked about the importance of understanding his style of leadership, way of speaking and particular vocabulary. What stands out for me when I think of Pope Francis is his stress on the culture of encounter. Pope Francis wants us to meet people where they are, not where we would like them to be.

It’s possible to see the whole of our salvation history through the prism of encounter. In our biblical imaginations we hold the images of Adam and Eve who are afraid of that encounter and hide themselves, Abraham who encounters God as he look at the stars of the night, Sarah who listens at the opening of the tent and hears God’s promise for her, and so many more. Each encounter involves a person taking one step nearer to the God who holds the promise of all Life.

Mary Magdalene too must take that one step closer to Jesus. Making her way to the tomb in darkness, she’s drawn by the power of every moment of encounter that she has ever had with Jesus. It might well have been as dawn was breaking that Jesus meets her. He takes the initiative. Then she must respond too.

I am always struck by the very human nature of this encounter. Jesus says her name and in that moment Mary is returned to herself. There are no angels or flashes of light, just one person recognising another. Raymond Brown sees in this moment an echo of the Good Shepherd in John 10:

‘She is one of those of whom Jesus said “I know my sheep and mine know me.” ‘

There are many ways for us to come to faith. Mary Magdalene shows us the way of encounter.

Imagine Jesus calling you by name. How do you respond?

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Luke 10: 38-42

In the cycle of our Lectionary readings it’s a comparative rarity to find a Gospel text that features women who are both named and are central to the story. Martha and Mary populate our biblical imagination as women who had a particular gift: they were close friends of Jesus. That they open their house to Jesus and his disciples tells us that they were comfortable in each other’s presence.

I’ve listened to many sermons that hold up Martha and Mary as icons of action and contemplation respectively. The preacher may assume that you are likely to identify with one sister more than the other. There will be comments about how the Church needs both Martha and Mary. Then comes the invitation to develop your shadow side.

Robert Karris in his book ‘Eating your way through Luke’s Gospel’ suggests a different approach. He makes the observation that in many stories in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus meets with others around a table the invitation is to identify with Jesus. He suggests that we try it for this story too.

When Jesus is the guest, all eyes must be on him. He is the one thing necessary.

I’m pretty certain that if Jesus and his friends dropped by my monastery for dinner I’d be making the easiest thing possible, using the least amount of pans and making sure I didn’t miss a minute of the conversation. And the washing up would definitely wait until the morning.

How can you make space to listen to Jesus?

Image: Edgar Castrejon, Unsplash

 

Feast of St Benedict

Proverbs 2:1-9
Matthew 19:27-29

Some years ago I attended a lecture by Nicholas King sj entitled ‘Religious Life in the Bible. He began the lecture with a wry smile, repeated his lecture title slowly and then told us that of course there in no such thing as ‘Religious Life in the Bible’. I don’t think anybody in the lecture hall had really questioned his title!

When we come to celebrate today’s feast of St Benedict we won’t of course find St Benedict directly pre-figured in the Bible. Instead the Church offers us texts that have been the inspiration for what eventually grew into monasticism.

My son, if you take my words to heart,  
if you set store by my commandments,
tuning your ear to wisdom,  
and applying your heart to truth:
yes, if your plea is for clear perception,  
if you cry out for discernment,
if you look for it as if it were silver,  
and search for it as for buried treasure,
you will then understand what the fear of the Lord is,  
and discover the knowledge of God.

This text from the Wisdom literature of Proverbs resonates immediately for followers of St Benedict. St Benedict begins his Rule is this way:

‘Listen carefully my son, to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.’

There is a groundedness and loving measure in each text. I can’t hear one with out the other. This is one of the gifts of the monastic path that your ear, and ideally your heart too, become more finely tuned.

It’s from this place of attentive listening and desire to seek God that I hear Peter’s heartfelt question: ‘What about us? We have left everything and followed you. What are we to have, then?’ Following Jesus, following St Benedict or following any leader is a risky enterprise. I am sure that there comes a point in every monastic’s life when they could very easily voice Peter’s question. Jesus’ response to Peter tells us something of the dynamic at work here: we are to receive ‘a hundred fold’. Following Jesus involves a heart that is both open to giving up AND receiving. In many ways the giving up looks more straight forward. Learning to receive what God offers becomes the lifetime’s work of the monastic and anyone who wants to follow Christ.

How is God calling you to give and receive today?

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 10:25-37

The Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the most well-known parables in the Gospels. Often the very familiar parables can become weighed down with stereo typical interpretations, interpretations that often cast Judaism in a bad light. We’ve probably all heard sermons that speak of the priest and the Levite as the ‘elite’ and their concern for purity laws. Luke isn’t interested in purity in this parable. His interest is mercy.

When the Samaritan stops it is because he is is ‘moved with compassion’. His compassion shows itself in concrete action. Straight away he sets about trying to soothe and heal the man’s wounds with oil and wine. In Greek the word for oil is eliaon. It’s from this root that the word for mercy also comes, eleon.

Such is the depth of the Samaritan’s mercy that not only does he try to provide immediate relief for the man but he makes long term provision for him too.

He then lifted him on to his own mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said “and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.”

The Samaritan has set no limits on what will be needed to restore the man to health. The lawyer has surely got more than he bargained for with his two questions: ‘Master what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and ‘Who is my neighbour?’

This parable is about our capacity to show mercy and our willingness to be generous. It is about having our hearts stirred to compassion and the courage to respond with the mercy and generosity of God.

Where in your life is God calling you to bring healing with oil and wine?

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

In last Sunday’s Gospel we heard the exacting demands of discipleship. This Sunday the focus narrows as we hear just how the seventy-two are to conduct themselves as they set out on their mission.

‘Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals.’

This is a stark reminder that complete trust in God is required if they are to be God’s instruments. Their full attention it to be given to their mission. It’s perhaps reassuring that they go out in twos. Whoever or whatever they meet on the road will be a little easier if there are two.

‘Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is set before you. Cure those in it who are sick, and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” 

I am struck by the detail and the incarnational tone of the instructions that they are given. That eating comes first perhaps says something about the importance of acceptance and trust in the missionary dynamic. I am reminded here of Tom O’Loughlin’s work on the ‘grammar of meals’:

Meals have their own dynamics, what we might refer to as their own
grammar, which becomes a theological logic with regard to
sharing in one another’s celebrations. I cannot welcome you to
my table and then refuse you food, nor can I take a place at your
table and then refuse what you provide!

Meals, Eucharist and Ecumenism

The disciples are then to meet the needs of all whom they encounter. Sickness loomed large in the time of Jesus and the arrival of people with a reputation for being able to cure would have spread very quickly in any village.

The sharing food and the healing of sickness now provide the backdrop for their core message: ‘the kingdom of God is very near to you.’ The seventy-two in their words and actions are inviting those they meet to welcome the Kingdom with all of its potential and challenge.

How can you welcome this Kingdom this week?