What’s in a Word: Obdurate

The Pharisees came out and began to debate with [Jesus],
seeking from him a sign from heaven testing him.
He groaned in his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
And leaving them, he again he got in the boat
and went off to the other shore.

The Gospel of St. Mark 8:11-13

The daily gospel readings these early weeks of Ordinary Time can leave you breathless with the pace of St. Mark’s narrative, yet they have several reoccurring themes that are worth our meditation. One, in particular, is how Jesus responds to the ever-present Pharisees lurking at the edges of many of the beautiful actions of our Savior. The gospel reading for today follows the miracle of Jesus feeding the crowd of 4,000 plus hungry folk who had followed him.

The Pharisees, known to “strain at a gnat but swallow a camel,” floundered in their understanding and acceptance of Jesus. Jesus had just fed the large crowd, the word had spread, and now the Pharisees debated with Jesus’ ability to provide a sign from heaven. What?!? What seems so obvious to us illuded the Pharisees. Why? That is worth pondering because if we are not careful to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can become just as blinded by our pride. Have you ever been in conversation with someone who already had their mind made up about something and they were not interested in your perspective? They just wanted an opportunity to prove their point. In effect, they were saying, “My minds made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Is it any wonder that “Jesus groaned in his spirit? He knew the heart of man; he knew the Pharisee’s hardness of heart caused their spiritual blindness. We know he healed some of them of their hardened hearts, but most remained intractable. Jesus’ dismay over humanity’s spiritual blindness wasn’t reserved for the Pharisees, though. A few verses later in the narrative, Jesus has a conversation with the disciples. The scripture doesn’t say it, but I imagine that Jesus once again groaned in his spirit over their lack of understanding.

Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.  And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.”  And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.”  Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

The Gospel of St. Mark 8:14-21

The Greek transliteration of Jesus questions to the disciples reads,

“Do you not perceive, nor understand? Do you keep an obdurate heart in you? Having eyes, do you not look? And having ears do you not listen? And do you not remember?”

Yikes, even the disciples (that would be you and me) missed the boat sometimes (pun intended)! It just so happens that as I set out to write my thoughts down about this scripture reading, I had a moment where I was a bit obdurate myself. (There are many synonyms for obdurate: stiff-necked, unrelenting, adamant, pigheaded, etc.) I greeted the LORD as I awakened, thanking him for the day ahead. It was a day I had already planned for prayer, writing, and reading. I thrive on order and stability, but sometimes my eyes are so fixed on how I think a day should go that I suffer from the same sight and hearing problems the disciples had. And, yes, I have to admit that I can become pharisaical in my determination to get righteousness right! Does that sound as funny to you as it does to me?

My day started with a plan in mind, but in the LORD’s mind, he wanted to restore my sight about the limitations of my health that I regularly try to ignore. The matter of my health is beside the point in light of how the LORD got my attention. I sensed him saying to me, “Lois, you are zealous for me, but sometimes you struggle with balance. The sign I’ve given you is clear; your body needs to lay down and rest. You have a choice now. Are you going to ignore the sign I’ve given to you, or are you going to pig-headedly force this day to go according to your big fat ego!” No, kidding, that’s just how the day started. At least on this day, I answered the LORD by remembering that I am his beloved daughter and that he desires holiness as well as wholeness for me.

What would have happened to the stiff-necked Pharisees if they would hadn’t been so hell-bent on proving their points with Jesus? They would have received all the graces of salvation that Jesus desired for them because he loved them. We know that eventually, the disciples learned to see and hear what Jesus was giving to humanity through his flesh in miracles and teachings. The disciples transformed into the freedom of spirit that comes from the humble acceptance that we are not in control and that life is not about us.

“Hardness of the heart” is another description used for obdurance, and that hits too close to home when putting that way, does it not? Jesus comes to us offering his grace and mercy as he did to the Pharisees, the crowds that pursued him, and the disciples that followed him. I ask you what I ask the LORD.

LORD, am I so consumed by concern about what’s happening around me that I don’t leave room to be surprised by your grace? You answer me: I know what you need, be more concerned that my kingdom comes into you. I’ll take care of everything else.

LORD, in my determination to gain the upper hand in this relationship, am I losing sight of your desire for me to humble myself? Even before this person who is a burr under the saddle of my existence? You say to me: Don’t second guess her; that’s my job. Pull out that tangle of thorns under your saddle.

LORD, am I following your commandments and precepts to impress others or to love the others? You answer me: “…without love for Me and others; you can do nothing.”

But what about So and So, LORD? Does she seem to look for opportunities to make me feel insignificant? You answer me: No one can use their words to “revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you” without answering to me. Rejoice and take heart, I love you, and that is all that matters! 

LORD Jesus, open our eyes and ears so that your kingdom may come into us!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.


Glory Be

My bet is if I say, “Glory be to the Father,” to you as a practicing Catholic, the remainder of the prayer would roll off your tongue back to me, “…and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was, in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be world without end.” To say that the Glory Be is embedded in our Catholic identity would be an accurate conclusion. We have prayed The Gloria, and extended Glory Be, in chant or song when we celebrate the Mass since about 380 A.D. I counted up how many times we pray the Glory Be each day as a response in the Liturgy of the Hours: we pray it at least 38 times starting with Morning Prayer and concluding with Night Prayer. So, why does the liturgy of the Church train our minds to weave this sacred tradition of prayer into our daily lives?

We, in our finite existence, recognize the LORD’s infinite existence, we bow our minds to that truth when we pray the Glory Be. It takes time and not just a little bit of effort, on our part, for our hearts to believe what we pray, doesn’t it? To entirely abandon our desire for control is no small undertaking so The Church, in her wisdom, inches our minds closer and closer to detachment from the world’s ways and means through a habit of prayer.

I kindle to something St. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive”, we can stretch that truth a bit to read, “When I live fully alive to God I give him glory.” We can conclude that when we die to the world we are more fully alive to God’s glory. Praying the truth of the Glory Be with this understanding trains us in wisdom; it becomes a prayer of detachment from the sways of the culture. We may get to the place where we appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and the goods it provides for us without depending on them for our joy and peace of mind. I can imagine the LORD smiling as we pray the Glory Be because we ascend to him each time and with baby steps, we gain his Spirit’s wisdom. That gives him glory!

So how does praying, “As it was, in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.” train us in the Spirit’s wisdom? It anchors us. I don’t know your life; however, I know mine. I NEED anchoring. Elsewise, I’m tossed to and fro by what is happening around me in the world. I remind myself through this prayer that the constancy of God from the beginning remains because He never changes. His faithfulness is new every morning, as the prophet Jeremiah wrote. When I stop my runaway thoughts to pray instead of wallow in distress, I glorify this constancy of our Triune God, and his Spirit grants me understanding and wisdom. Do you ever get carried away with angst or despair at what you see happening around you? Then pray, “Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be world without end.”

Knowing and believing that the love of God that spoke this world into existence and remains faithful through all time, enfolding us here and now and into the future liberates us from counting on this life to give us a security that only comes from God alone. Praying the Glory Be is a clarifying prayer in that believing what we are praying moves our eyes off the tide of changing history. We learn to give glory to God when we enjoy his blessings, remembering that he is the Giver of all good things. And then when the tide changes and we feel unsettled, God faithfully clarifies for us the way through that tide until we gain our equilibrium once more.

Praying the Glory Be is a calming prayer in that the weight of God’s glory settles down on us, enfolding us in the secure knowledge that “All is well, and all manner of things will be well.”* Much like a weighted blanket calms anxiety for a body that is agitated, the LORD in his goodness rests down upon us the glorious weight of the splendor of his eternal presence. It is a Presence that endures through all times and events (Psalm 145). We aren’t created to be hand-wringers, tossed to and fro by every possible change that comes along. No, we are created for eternal life with God here and now, we are created for peace. When we fix our gaze on the Kingdom of God knowing that “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end,” the weight of this truth presses our disordered reactions into responses secured in the knowledge and understanding that “Eternal life is [knowing God].” (St. John 17:3)

Father, you are near to all who call upon you. The more we call upon you, the more we learn to know ourselves. Transform us as we give glory to you.

Jesus, your Word tells us, “Blessed are those who are pure in heart for they shall see God.” You wouldn’t promise that if you didn’t mean it! With every upward surge of our heart, we glorify you, enlighten our darkened understanding of who you are.

Holy Spirit, foster in us a spirit of indifference toward the world. Train our desires to always give glory to you, and you alone.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen

In A Word….”Selah”

Today’s readings from the psalms and oracles of the prophets serve as a soundtrack, as it were, for us as we have been considering the beginnings of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, recorded in Genesis. It’s not hard to recognize the same soundtrack plays as a backdrop for our own lives as we grow into our identity as God’s child. In fact, I believe that is why the psalms and oracles are so prevalent in The Liturgy of the Church, the words unite our spirit with the Spirit of God’s voice throughout the ages.

There is a certain word that is often sung or implied as a theme and by heeding it I may receive the LORD’s help as I walk the path of salvation. The word acts as a pop-up reminder to us to remember who we are and to whom we belong as we tread our own way through the high and low places of our journey of salvation. Consider this paraphrase of Psalm 46.

God is [my] refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.  Therefore [I] will not fear …… Selah

…God is in [my] midst; [I] shall not be moved;
God will help ….

….“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”….

The words of the psalmist convey the ever-present help of the LORD to us as the way to mindfulness of the LORD’s quiet presence to us. The psalmist ends each phrase with the word “Selah”, which means “forever” or “to lift up; exalt”, its presence in the psalm is a cue for us to pause or to take a breath allowing our minds to take in what the psalmist has proclaimed. It serves as a sacred and silent interlude for us to receive the LORD’s truth. Within this particular psalm, there is the implication of the “if/then” of the fullness of God’s Covenant with us. He calls the people to “Be still and know that I am God,” to consider what the LORD in his mercy is trying to teach us as we live out our salvation: If you will remain silent, listen and linger with me, then you will know I am your fortress; I will be your salvation! Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Yet in practice, it can take a colossal effort to remain silent. I am sometimes tempted to rely on my own judgment to quickly plow through the interruptions of life or become so enamored by the shiny parts of life that I’m distracted from the reality of the LORD’s Covenant with me.

We see this evidenced in what we’ve been reading about the history of God’s people; how fear and pride dogged their path, how they allowed the so-called gods of the culture around them to lose sight of the LORD’s Covenant. Eventually, fatigue from their striving to fit in with the culture wears them down. What I have observed in my own life is that if fear and pride don’t drive me to my knees before the LORD, fatigue certainly will. I need “Selah” for I weary of the tug of war between my own will and the LORD’s will…..that’s just like him, isn’t it? He allows us to come to the end of ourselves where we finally cease striving. It’s as if the LORD says, “Lois, I finally have you where I need you…..now, let’s consider how you are striving to achieve and acquire what comes from Me alone.”

Two other passages from the psalms and the prophet are included in the Liturgy today that draws our spirit into a “Selah”. From Isaiah 30:15, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved. In quiet and in trust your strength lies.” And again in Psalm 124 we can imagine the psalmist seated on a mountainside of the rugged terrain of Israel. As he sits there, he is pondering all the “what ifs” of life and remembers the faithfulness of the LORD as his rock and refuge. In that “Selah” a song formulates in his mind and he begins to sing,

If it had not been the Lord who was on my side
    when people rose up against me,
then they would have swallowed me up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against me;
then the flood would have swept me away,
    the torrent would have gone over me;
then over me would have gone
    the raging waters.”

Friend, are there “what ifs” in your life? Do you sit still before the LORD as you ponder them?…. Selah

Have you come through a time of celebration and are left with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude?… Selah

Were you following a path set before you when circumstances went sideways for you? …Selah

Has someone you trusted betrayed you? ….Selah

Has the pandemic brought about a financial reversal in your life?… Selah

Do you tend to focus on what the LORD hasn’t done for you?… Selah

When you scurry after pleasures that are passing, do you…Selah?

The joy of our salvation comes through our own willingness to Selah; to be still and know that the LORD is forever faithful and true. Only He can truly satisfy.

LORD God, remind us that nothing is new under the sun. You never change and your responses to our own choices are the same as they were to our ancestors in the faith. LORD, you are faithful and true even when we are not. Slow us down, train us to embrace “Selah” in our posture before you.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen