He Must Increase, but I Must Decrease

Today The Church remembers the Passion of St. John the Baptist. He was the last prophet of Israel; he lived and died in the appointed place in history as the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. It was his passion for God in the way he lived and in the way he died that we are remembering today. The Saint’s passion was for the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. That zeal prevailed above the threat of persecution and martyrdom! I believe that is why the daily liturgy includes the Canticle of Zechariah at the beginning of each day. What Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, said at his birth is what our heavenly Father says to us. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the LORD to prepare his way…to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

He must increase, but I must decrease.

St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist lived up to that proclamation; he lived up to what he said was his entire desire, Christ must increase, but I must decrease. On the surface, death looks like the absolute decrease of one’s existence, but he knew differently because his hope was in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Doesn’t that make you want to stand up straighter as a beloved child of God? It does me!

What can we learn from St. John the Baptist as we live out the desire for Christ to increase while we decrease? The mass reading from the Epistles today provides guidance for you and me on how to be courageous in our passion for Christ to increase in us. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.

I Corinthians 2: 1-5

As Christians, our hope comes from outside, not from what we can conjure up from the culture around us. Once we come to the place that St. Paul refers to when he wrote I resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ, we cease striving for we have discovered the extraordinary truth that we are the beloved child of the Most High God, from him and through him all things flow, He is enough! Our striving decreases in us when we know nothing except Jesus Christ. He changes our very nature, and we become passionate, as it were, to live as forerunners for Christ in our corner of the world just like St. John the Baptist.

St. John the Baptist’s very life was a demonstration of spirit and power, as St. Paul put it. He would not allow the status quo of the religiosity of his day nor the ho-hum business-as-usual culture to stop him from shining Christ to his world. He hoped despite his circumstances because his faith didn’t rest not on human wisdom but in the power of God. I desire that, don’t you?

LORD Jesus Christ, grant us the courage and passion that St. John the Baptist exemplified in his living and dying.

Decrease in us the spirit of fear, pride, and anger that is borne of the darkness in our souls. We ask for the increase of all that is good, right, ans true in us, and grant us the courage to live in the power of your name.

Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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

Amen

The Rhythm of Creation

I revel in the rhythm of the seasons each year, and we are in one right now here in South Dakota. Summer is waning: the evening air is crisp, and the sunlight is a deeper gold. I’ve been pondering the seasons of life during my morning walks as I observe summer slowly tiptoeing into autumn. I’m keenly aware of how the rhythm of my life is changing as well; there is a certain adagio, a slowing in my spirit. The kind of slowing that is welcomed, setting a new time scale, as it were, to the song my life. My appreciation to the LORD for this is described in today’s Mass reading from Psalm 96!

O sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples.
 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Psalm 96

The theme of the daily liturgy over this last week or so culminates in the poetry of this psalm. You may remember what we read from the book of the prophet, Ezekiel. The LORD promised, “O, my people! A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…” This scripture reminded me of the familiar scripture from the Book of Revelation, “Behold. I make all things new!” All this has me wondering how the song I sing sounds to the LORD in this season of my life. My song to the LORD has many verses inspired by the passages of time and circumstances. I bet yours does, too. Recently, I wondered if the song I’m currently singing to the LORD causes him to want to hum along. And then I asked myself if the sound of my song makes others want to hum along.

Some words from Peter Kreeft came to mind as I’ve been contemplating the Scriptures this last week, “Speech not only reveals the soul; it also conditions the soul. The more you say something, the more you believe it. The more you praise something, the more you love it. The more you rail against something, the more you hate it.” Read that again. Do those few sentences cause you to pause as it has me? The saying goes, what’s down in the well comes up in the bucket. The new song I’m singing is composed of a season of spiritual healing and the release of long-held resentments and pride. I feel a lighter touch in the sound welling up within me. And I do believe the LORD and others appreciate this new song as much as I do!

What season of life do you find yourself in? What does the music of your life sound like to the LORD and to others?

The LORD wants us to sing a new song, not for the sake of change, but for the sake of increasing our awareness that his mercies are new every morning! Do you feel that your song is getting tired and sounding a bit out of tune? I feel you. Sometimes it seems too hard to do the soul work of rewriting our song, so we get accustomed to singing out of tune, so to speak. The harmony comes when we set the upbeats and downbeats of the seasons of life with the rhythm of the LORD’s song. The notes on his scale are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And in his beautiful way, he takes the crescendos and decrescendos of life to compose a new melody for us to sing. Can you hear it? Don’t you want it?

The timbre of my song comes through a little differently than it did in my 30s, 40s, and 50s. There’s a deeper texture and form because of what each season of life has given to me as it passed. What season are you in? What needs tuning in your spirit so that you can sing a new song to the LORD?

I’ve been singing this to myself lately,

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since the Lord is lord of heav’n and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing?

LORD and Maestro of my life, poco a poco, little by little, I’m learning your new song for me, and, you know, I like the sound of it! Thank you for your Symphony of Love that rings ever and true!

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,

Song without end!

Amen

A Deserted Place

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted place, and it is already late;
dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;
give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me,”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over–
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.

The Gospel according to St. Matthew 14:13-22

We’re familiar with Jesus feeding vast crowds but have you ever wondered about what went on in the in-between of Jesus’s public ministry? Observing how the narrative unfolded is what has caught my attention this week. Let’s consider it together, for I believe we can learn much from the in-between of Jesus’ life here on earth. “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The disciples had just informed Jesus that his cousin John, the last prophet of Israel, had been executed for proclaiming the Kingdom of God is at hand…the long-awaited Messiah had come who was his cousin, Jesus. The God-ness of Jesus not only knew John had just suffered and died before the disciples informed him, but his holy Spirit was also with John in all the moments leading up to and after his death, and Jesus would have even welcomed him into God’s Kingdom! Mind-blowing! The God-ness of Jesus had inspired the prophets of Israel’s history with his holy Spirit-ness to predict that John would be the very one to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth! Does your mind rattle a bit at that? The God-ness of Jesus is beyond our comprehension!

You and I can’t be God, but we can be godly humans, so, let’s consider the human-ness of Jesus as we read that sentence again, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” We often read about Jesus withdrawing from the people around him, and the purpose for it always appears to be the same—prayer and rest. There is something about this particular choice that Jesus regularly made that can benefit us. I know I write this often, but it bears repeating, Jesus came to us, as one of us, to show us the way to unity with God. When we choose to live and move and have our being according to Jesus’ way of living, we understand the necessity of solitude to recollect ourselves so that we respond to life in the attitude of prayer, rather than the reaction from our sinful leanings toward anger, fear, and pride.

Consider that Jesus just received nerve-wracking, soul-wrenching information; notice that he didn’t react in an angry rage over the injustice. He didn’t wring his hands in fear over what John’s death meant for his human-ness. Jesus didn’t declare that it was finally his turn to get all the attention. No, anger, fear, and pride did not have a place in Jesus’ heart and mind, for he is perfect…but we are not! I believe that following in Jesus’ footsteps by regularly seeking the LORD by withdrawing from whatever is consuming us, for a moment or for days, allows room in our soul for us to recollect who and what we are in the eyes of our Beloved Father.

Jesus withdrew by himself, yet he wasn’t alone. His God-ness filled that place, making a sanctuary of recollection and prayer. The sorrow Jesus felt was real, and it was tragic. I imagine his Human-ness needed to take in what had just happened and sit with it for a while, to meditate and collect himself. The wisdom in making that choice makes me consider what I would do. Any kind of news can tip us over at a moment’s notice—death, yes, but also the disruptions of life. Jesus shows us that When we consciously withdraw ourselves–physically, mentally, or emotionally–from what seems urgent, we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us about what is most important. Do you know what I find to be true in those times? What I’m tempted to get worked up over always loses its momentum in my emotions if I simply withdraw to a deserted place to have a little talk with Jesus. It can be tough to suspend my reactions about what is happening around me when I ignore the LORD’s desire for me is prayer and meditation with him. Knee-jerk reactions are often rife with overweaning anger, fear, and pride. It sets us up for dissembling into a Me, Myself, and I-ness: the myopic and fractious self-talk. You know what I mean, going round and round in a cul-de-sac of self-promotion or self-pity or self-protection that always leads us back into ourselves, and we become septic in our delusion that somehow it’s all up to us to figure life out.

What’s the difference between praying to the trilogy of ourselves and the Holy Trinity? When Jesus withdrew to pray he was with his holy Self! We can assume his human-ness meditated on his God-ness. Was his prayer the action of reminding himself of who he was and why he had subjected himself to the emotions and feelings of human-ness? Was his prayer the action of reminding himself of what he was about for he knew his purpose? We don’t know! But Jesus returned from that deserted prayer and fed the hungry crowd because that’s what he was about.

Jesus, the biggest obstacle for us to withdraw from our SELF is sinful nature! You know us better than we know ourselves. But it’s difficult sometimes to entrust ourselves to you in prayer because we forget that you shared in our emotions but you did not react in sin, you responded out of your holiness. Oh, LORD, grant us wisdom to see our overweaning reactions are caused by sin at work in us.

Through your incarnation, you became one with us. Through your suffering and death for us, you showed that suffering and surrendering is the path to unity with you. Will you reach your hand out to us again, and pull us away from our sinful delusions? May we seek solitude in prayer with You so that you may reveal to us any anger, fear, or pride that keeps us from uniting with you through prayer.

Your Passion for us opened the gates to Eternal life before us. Remind us that the courts of heaven are surrounded by prayer. And it is only in the intimacy of prayer with you that we may enter into them here and now. Remind us that there are crowds in our corner of your world, waiting to observe in us an inkling of this abundant life. Would you show us today who is hungry for you, the Bread of Life?

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

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

Amen

New Every Morning!

Today’s morning prayer and the responsorial psalm in today’s Mass readings draw our minds into considering the constancy of Creation. The morning prayer from Psalm 65 proclaims the faithfulness of God:

You care for the earth and water it,
    you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
    you provide the people with grain,
    for so you have prepared it.
 You water its furrows abundantly,
    settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
    and blessing its growth.
 You crown the year with your bounty;
    your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
 The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
    the hills gird themselves with joy,
 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
    the valleys deck themselves with grain,
    they shout and sing together for joy.

–Psalm 65: 10-14

Beautiful; isn’t it? The comeliness of creation is my muse, and stepping into it never fails to draw my attention to the Beauty, Goodness, and Truth of God’s abundant love for me. It just so happens that as I write this I am staying at a big old farm in the rolling breaks of the Missouri River; quintessential South Dakota! I’m surrounded by grazing sheep and cattle, and undulating fields ripe with wheat, corn, clover, and timothy. The harvest will yield more of a bounty this year because of the rain our region has received. It is this cadence of God’s creation that inspires in me a certain hope and gratitude. The words of the prophet Jeremiah have been on my lips as I awakened each day,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore; I will hope in him.”

Creation to me is at once a playground, classroom, and sanctuary where God waits for me to join him. I’ve joined with Him this particular week as I romped barefoot around this acreage. I contemplated his Word to me as I chewed on a wheat stem; certainly, a farmer’s thing to do. We laughed as we observed twin fawns leap from the fencerow into the farmyard on their newborn legs in the cool of each evening. The LORD reminded me of the prophet Isaiah’s words:

[On that day…] the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35: 5-7

Are you waiting for joy to happen while you try to make sense of a circumstance? Take a leap of faith to know you will soon leap like a deer in whatever might weigh you down at the moment. Thank you, LORD, for reminding me that when life seems all effort and no rest, you invite me onto your playground so that I may leap for joy in spite of it all.

Creation has been a classroom for me this week as I observed my husband work to clear the fencerows of volunteer juniper trees. How did those seeds get there? To put it carefully, birds carried them in their little bellies and deposited them upon the ground while they rested on the fences! He told me they were a nuisance to farmers when it came time to fix a fence since the juniper actually envelopes the fence as it grows. I also observed as I walked through the cornrows each morning, how quickly the corn grew from one day to the next because of the ideal growing conditions this year. The LORD reminded me of the parable of the weeds and the wheat in which he reminded his disciples that, the bad seed grows alongside the good seed in spite of our diligent attention to destroy them. Do you sometimes wonder how God is going to redeem a situation that seems like it’s going sideways? The psalm for today’s responsorial psalm came to my mind as I interceeded for my dear nephew, Andrew, who needs to allow the LORD to do a lot of week picking.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’  He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew 13:24-30

********

Although [you] go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
[You] shall come back rejoicing,
carrying the sheaves. 

Psalm 126

Farming is hard work! Interceding for others is hard work! It can be discouraging some years and encouraging other years. The LORD taught me that even during times when the hard work of intercession causes me to weep, I must persevere in what appears to me, are less than ideal growing conditions! Ever been there, friend? Take heart, the LORD speaks into our lives, Teach me, LORD, that just as the order of your creation always wins the day, you conquer over the weeds of injustice and rampant evil. You will lift your scythe, and justice will prevail! I’ll persevere in tending to Andrew through interceding for him, and I’ll trust you for the harvest.

I walked to the top of a wooded knoll each morning, and in that little sanctuary of shade, I worshipped the LORD. As far as I could see to the north, west, east, and south, I saw the fields ripening for harvest; corn, wheat, timothy, and clover. The smell of freshly cut timothy wafted in the breeze, I asked the LORD to make of my life a sacrifice that smells as sweet as the timothy. I marveled at the verdant growth around me and felt as though creation indeed was singing with me the LORD’s praises! I bow my head and worshipped the LORD joining the psalmist in declaring,

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

Psalm 72: 18,19

A Willing Sacrifice

Greetings, friend.

Over the past week, I picked up on the theme of sacrifice that wove through the daily Mass readings. It was like looking at the picturebook, Where in the World is Waldo? Sacrifice popped into focus in several of the Sacred Scriptures. The timing of this theme has caused me to stop and meditate many times; it seems the Holy Spirit is up to something with me as I anticipate stepping into a circumstance I would just as soon avoid if left to my own emotional leanings. Avoiding something or someone(s) that causes me discomfort is too often the default setting for me–the sacrifice seems too great! Do you ever do that?

The Mass reading from the Old Testament today is the culmination of a week-long consideration of what it means to live sacrificially. The LORD’s message to the prophet, Micah, tells us that he requires mercy not sacrifice. What would that look like in my life? I sense that my notion of sacrifice needs to realign with God’s way. Does worshipping the LORD at Mass and immersing my spirit in the Daily readings qualify as a sacrifice? They are acts of love, yet try as I might I couldn’t reconcile these, my preferred choices of demonstrating my love to our LORD, with what the prophet told his people was an acceptable sacrifice.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

    and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

    and to walk humbly with your God?

The Book of the Prophet Micah 6:8

Other questions came to my mind this past week when I read what the psalmist declared I will sacrifice to you with a willing heart… What qualifies as a willing heartIs my willingness to love on those who I prefer to be around sacrificial enough? How deep does my willingness to sacrifice my time and attention to others go? Do I have to actually make time for those whom I would just as soon avoid? Those questions made me a little uneasy as I examined the content of my thoughts about some relationships in my life. I felt the press of the Holy Spirit on my conscience.

Then, if that’s not enough, I read of the whole Martha/Mary thing! It was as though the Spirit of God pulled up a stool in front of me and looked me straight in the eyes! Has that ever happened to you? I could almost hear God laugh as I said to myself, I’ll just skim over this part. Never a good choice when reading God’s Word to us! St. Luke’s gospel places the encounter Jesus had with the dutiful young lawyer who questioned what he had to DO to inherit eternal life right before Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary. Jesus tells the infamous parable of The Good Samaritan to show what it takes to enter into eternity. He ended by telling him the one who showed mercy to the outcast had what it takes to abide with God forever. Then Jesus visits Martha (who seemed to have the same problem as the young lawyer) and Mary. Martha, so busy sacrificing her time and energy to make everything just perfect for a dinner party, confronts Jesus, of all things, complaining about her sister’s lack of busyness. I imagine she looks over her sister sitting at Jesus’ feet, snuggled as close to him as she could be. Mary is simply sitting there loving Jesus and hanging on his every word; she does not seem bothered by Martha’s accusation. Her posture leans toward Jesus, her eyes fixed on him. Jesus listens to Martha, then looks at Mary, then looks straight into Martha’s eyes to tell her that the one thing he needed from her is simply, love. Yikes! Does he mean that all my activity and sense of duty are not enough to show my love for him? Lord, have mercy on me!

A letter St. Maximilian Kolbe wrote came to mind as I struggled to make sense of all my unease about sacrificial love. Kolbe, who was martyred in the place of a young Jewish cellmate at Auschwitz, wrote:

“Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving. Let’s remember that not everything which is good and beautiful pertains to genuine, essential love because even without those other things love can be present, indeed a perfected love. Without sacrifice, there is no love. Sacrifice the senses, taste, hearing, and above all, the mind and the will in holy obedience. I wish for you and for myself the best appreciation of sacrifice which is the unconditional willingness to sacrifice.

Pray with me, friend.

LORD, unconditional willingness to sacrifice my desires for you enables me to love the way you want me to love others. It is a struggle sometimes.

I am not always willing to be fair in my thoughts and actions toward those in my life who are not easy to love…I hear you say to me from your cross, Without sacrifice, there is no love.

You never withhold your love from me, but sometimes I am unwilling in how I love others because of my resentments and assumptions…I hear you say to me from your cross, Without sacrifice, there is no love.

It is easier to be close-minded about differences with others than to be willing to open my heart to them, yet your mind is wide open to everyone…I hear you say to me from your cross, Without sacrifice, there is no love.

My love for others can sometimes be conditional because I am unwilling to be vulnerable to the pain they might cause me…I hear you say to me from your cross, Without sacrifice, there is no love.

LORD, have mercy on me when I take two steps forward and three steps back in being willing to offer myself as a sacrifice of love to everyone around me!

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.

Amen.

The Feast Day of St. Benedict

Preferring Christ: The Rule of St. Benedict

Today is the Feast Day of St. Benedict of Nursia. St. Benedict is among the posse of saints that surround my life, interceding for me before the LORD, our God. The Rule of St. Benedict which is so revered in the history of The Church is a rich tapestry of wisdom that is tightly woven with Sacred Scripture to guide us in living our ordinary life in an extraordinary way.

The Rule orientates us to the knowledge that God is everywhere, all the time, and because of this, every element of our ordinary day is potentially holy. Ascending to this truth that seems a little homely reorients us to our created identity because we learn to recognize that daily life is the grist for the mill of our consecration to our Creator. Does your day-to-day life seem stressful, challenging, hum-drum, or dull? Then St. Benedict is your guide through the ordinary into the extraordinary life in God.

The title, The Rule of St. Benedict, is better understood in its ancient context of the Latin word, regula, or guidepost. The prologue of The Rule begins with this: Listen, my child….incline the ear of your heart. Hearing and listening are two different things. Have you ever spent time with someone who hears you but doesn’t incline their spirit toward you enough to listen to you? Worse yet, do we hear the Word of the LORD without our spirit leaning toward him in order to really listen? St. Benedict emphasizes the importance of turning toward Christ with the posture of a child leaning into him to hear every word of beauty, goodness, and truth. In this way we are trained in preferring Christ above all things which is one of St. Benedict’s favorite themes. Praying with St. Benedict as we pray Sacred Scripture helps us look at our world through interior eyes. It helps us become better listeners to our Father and, in turn, better observers of the people and events of our lives.

Early in The Rule, we are guided in three monastic virtues: obedience, restraint of speech, and humility. Hmm? That sounds like the folk in the sixth century were just like us. St. Benedict makes it clear that these timeless virtues are inseparable. As we practice these virtues, we gain everything the LORD has promised us of the abundant life with Him. We, like St. Benedict, live in a culture of protest, excessive self-promotion, and overweaning pride. You and I can choose from the vices of the culture or we can pursue the virtues of God’s Kingdom; how is it going for you? It’s hard work to swim upstream in our downstream society! So let’s briefly consider these primary virtues.

Here’s a little side note, each of these virtues has its own chapter in The Rule. Obedience gets 19 verses of attention; Silence gets one verse of attention, and Humility has a whopping 70 verses of attention! Take a knee with me at this observation!

Regarding the virtue of obedience, St. Benedict writes that the first step of humility is obedience without delay. He encourages us to, immediately leave all that is our concern and forsake our own will, with our hands disengaged from what seems urgent to us. I am driven by goals, so much so that finding balance in the daily round is a consistent prayer I offer to the LORD. Do you suffer from tunnel vision as I do? Disengaging my hands from what seems so important to me in a moment takes monumental effort sometimes. I am learning to appreciate the slowness that St. Benedict emphasizes throughout The Rule because it is in slowing down my pell-mell thoughts and actions I’m trained in obedience. What I am discovering as I slow down is there’s very little in life that is worth the whims and appetites of my self-indulgent grasping.

Regarding the virtue of Silence, St. Benedict writes Let us do as the prophet says: “I said, I will take heed to my ways that I do not sin with my tongue: I have placed a watch over my mouth… He draws our attention to the importance of silence with scriptures from the book of Proverbs: In too much speaking you shall not avoid sin. (Proverbs 10:19) And, Death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21) Oh, so much could be said here (pun not intended). I kindle to what fellow Benedictine oblate Norene Vest wrote about this: it seems to me that the more we love words, we tend to let ourselves be satisfied by them, thus stopping short of the true satisfaction [that comes from Jesus alone]. It calls to mind St. Paul’s observation that people are always learning but never understanding. I respond to that verse by praying, Lord, I don’t want to be so caught up in speaking about what I am learning at the expense of not understanding it and living it out. Lord, remind me that it is through listening and silence that you teach and lead me into rest.

And finally, regarding the virtue of humility, St. Benedict gives us extensive guidance, beginning with the straightforward point: the problem of the spiritual life is pride (self-exaltation); the remedy is humility. St. Benedict emphasizes the need to contemplate Sacred Scripture; it comes down to this, the more we immerse ourselves in praying with Sacred Scripture we become acutely aware of our prideful leanings.

He writes that we must, by our ever-ascending actions, erect a ladder, like the one which the proud and fearful Jacob beheld in his dream in his flight from duty and responsibility. Daily life offers plenty of opportunities to learn how to descend and ascend the ladder of humility. As we practice humility, the ladder is lifted by the LORD to heaven; I like that! Yet, some days when I’ve forgotten to allow the LORD to teach me this way, the Holy Spirit remains on each rung with me, guiding me. How about you, friend? When you face an old struggle and bristle at someone’s words or actions, does pride knock you off the ladder of humility? I regularly find myself flat on my backside, wondering how I could fall off the ladder again!

When we follow the guideposts in St. Benedict has provided us, we receive the remedy for the consumer-driven society that peddles discord, disenchantment, and dis-ease. We live in the chaos of evil times, full of anxiety, anger, and the noise of modernity! St. Benedict shows us the path away from it into preferring Christ over all things (no matter how entertaining or attractive they are) and abiding in the dailiness of our extraordinary life with God.

Let’s pray with St. Benedict:

O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, soul, strength

I desire to prefer nothing to the love of Christ…To desire eternal life with spiritual longing…to pray often. To ask forgiveness daily for my sins, and to seek ways to amend my life…Not to desire to be thought holy, but to seek holiness…Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy.

I ask this 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.

Amen

A Banner Day!

Happy Independence Day to readers in the United States! July 4, 1776, was the day we declared independence from the sovereignty of Great Britain. We celebrate, memorialize, display our nation’s flag, and we send fireworks into the sky to remind us of that pivotal day that Frances Scott Key poetically wrote about in The Star-Spangled Banner: O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

I’ve noticed during my morning walks that our flag is more visible as we near this day. In some sense, we believe hanging our flag identifies and unifies us, at least symbolically. I notice flags from other countries as well in my multicultural city. Often the national flag of a home country will hang just below the United States flag to identify the origin of the residents as well as honor their earned citizenship in the United States. I notice other flags that represent allegiance to causes, some noble, some not so much. Observing the increase of flags these days draws my mind to what the Sacred Scripture has to say about banners which is the ancient word for flag.

Today we celebrate this banner day in United States history because this day represents the hard-won victory over oppression and bondage. It’s probably no coincidence that the Holy Spirit has drawn my mind through the Liturgy of the Hours and the daily Mass readings this past week to consider the safety and security of my identity as God’s beloved daughter and the peace of abiding in God. Just as he led our forefathers in The Faith out of oppressive bondage in Egypt into The Promised Land, he leads us out from our own bondage to the ruler of sin and death. Diablo is one word used for Satan that gets at what oppression does to us–the accusations from the malignant enemy of our soul scatters us, dissembles us, and sends us into exile. We lose our identity because we forget who we are as God’s beloved!

It was Jesus Christ alone that waged war against the enemy of our soul once and for all, and uniting ourselves to him means every day is a banner day for us. As Catholics, we daily celebrate and memorialize the battle Jesus waged against death, hell, and the grave and his resurrection from the dead. In the worship of the Mass, we lift his victory banner in the way we worship him and in the way we live our lives. In effect, we, like Moses, build an altar of our life and name it The LORD is my banner. (Exodus 17:14,15)

We know the truth of the psalmist’s declaration: Surely, my boundaries have fallen in pleasant placesI will delight in God…I will dwell with God….my soul waits patiently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him….the praise of God is on my lips….my soul waits patiently for my God…

When we abide in God in this, our sacramental faith, the LORD leads us to where we remember who we are, and we declare with our heart, mind, and soul the beauty, goodness, and truth of our LORD. The psalmist wrote:

You have set up a banner for those who fear you

  to rally to it out of bowshot. Selah

Give victory with your right hand, and answer us

    so that those whom you love may be rescued.

Psalm 60:4,5

Why does the psalmist cue us to selah (pause) at this truth? As we rally the scattered pieces of our soul under the LORD’s banner of love, we live into the victory he has already won for us. Our identity as God’s beloved forms in us as we dwell with God. The LORD tells prophet Jeremiah to set up this banner and proclaim it, do not conceal it. (Jeremiah 50:2) We are the refugees of sin who have discovered peace under the sovereignty of the LORD God. As we carry this banner we declare the majesty and glory of the Lord and beckon the observers of our lives to unite with us to seek refuge in the spacious boundaries of the pleasant place that is our inheritance.

Friend, do you feel exiled from the goodness of the LORD’s presence? How come? What chains have been wrapped around you that bar you from believing that complete surrender to the LORD means complete freedom from oppression? The LORD’s arms are open to the refugee who seeks a home where beauty, goodness, and truth is the declaration of independence from the malignant enemy of souls. He reaches for you and me, beckoning all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to him.

I invite you to join with me in praying together with the psalmists:

Sovereign LORD, we shout for joy over your victory over death, hell, and the grave; we lift our banners in the name of our God.

We know that you’ve won the battle for us and gained the victory for us. As we celebrate and worship you in the worship of the Mass, we reach for you in your heavenly sanctuary and receive salvation by the victorious power of your hand.

Some trust in this world’s power, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. We are brought to our knees by the bondage to sin, and we fall, but because of your victory over sin, we rise and stand firm in the expanse of your bountiful land.

We declare with our heart, mind, and soul that The Lord is my Banner! You are the One under whom we are reunited with our created identity. You are our Savior; we have found refuge in you; we bear your name!

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.

Amen

Follow the Leader

“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

Follow is a theme that extends across the entirety of Sacred Scripture, a template, as it were, for understanding who we are as the created, not the Creator. In the story of Creation, God gave Adam and Eve all the goodness of his Creation. But, he also instructed them not to eat from the tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. What did the first man and woman do? They chose not to follow God’s desire for them. Humanity has had trouble following God for time immemorial; it is the human condition.

Fast forward through a long history of the fickleness of humanity caught in a predictable cycle of following God and not following God. God put on flesh and dwelt among us. What are Jesus’ first words to his fledgling disciples? Come, follow me. He was now their rabbi from whom they would learn how to walk on the path that Adam and Eve left–the path that leads toward the abundance of the good life God designed for us! He would show them the highway of holiness that leads to the kingdom of God.

Others would join Jesus on his journey: the benefactors of his miracles and his teaching. There were those in the crowds that followed Jesus who were waiting for the hope of Israel. They longed for a savior to free them from Roman oppression. Their interest was for a revolution, so they followed him with mixed motives. And there were the Pharisees in the crowd that actively opposed Jesus yet followed him out of curiosity. What were they all wanting to find by following Jesus? Where did they assume Jesus was going?

The preamble to the gospel reading for today includes the healing of a leper who was an outcast of Jewish society; the healing of a servant of a Roman centurion who was an outsider among the Jewish people; and the healing of a woman overlooked by society. On the evening of that particular day, a great crowd gathered around Jesus that brought the demon-possessed for exorcism, and loved ones carried their sick to Jesus for healing. These followers received from Jesus an inkling of the hope that he indeed was the long-promised Messiah. Now, let’s consider the gospel reading from St. Matthew that The Church holds up for us today.

When Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other shore. A scribe approached and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”

The Gospel According to St. Matthew 8:18-22

What was Jesus really saying to these men? We can assume the two men who spoke with Jesus knew his reputation aforementioned. One man, a scribe, another, a disciple of Jesus. The scribe was already following the Law of God, and the disciple was already following Jesus to some degree, but it appears they hadn’t fully embraced what Jesus meant when he said, follow me. Apparently, both needed to examine their motives for following Jesus. And Jesus’ response to them gets at two obstacles we face when following Jesus. Our comfort and our identity.

The scribe must have treasured the safety of knowing where he would lay his head to rest each night? Jesus responds that following him requires the abandonment of expectations and control over what we think is comfort and stability. Do you ever struggle against the drive to have control over how each day will go for you? Maybe you don’t fret about the pillow you will lay your head on at night, but the need for comfort drives other obsessions. Perhaps you have your life so scheduled that the possibility of surprise and interruptions would tip you right over. Jesus reveals the path of life to us in his good time and his good way. Surprise! God’s grace and mercy aren’t meted out according to our schedule! And this can mess with our notions on how to be a follower of his. To let go of the control of matters great and small is often the hardest thing to do in following Jesus. Jesus knows what we cannot understand until we abandon our expectations and follow him; he desires to lead us to the rest, peace, and security that surpasses our understanding of stability.

The natural desire of the disciple to bury his father was not wrong, but it seems Jesus knew that the man struggled with divided loyalty. Jesus’ hyperbole seems harsh to us, but consider this: the identity we have in our families can sometimes become a stumbling block to how we understand God’s love for us. Whether or not we have the blessing of a loving father or mother, we are the beloved child of our heavenly Father. We may be so mired in feelings of rejection from certain relationships within our families that we are conditioned to believe we are unlovable or unworthy. This can hinder us from receiving the unconditional love Jesus wants to reveal to us as we follow him. It is a love that is beautiful and life-giving, a love that honors us with a new identity! By following Jesus, we can receive freedom from the brokenness of our past. Jesus knows what we cannot understand until we follow him; just as he healed the diseases of the body, he desires to give us a new identity.

Jesus, we desire to follow you so closely that the light of your presence guides us on the path of the abundant life you desire for us.

Jesus, teach us how to take each step that leads us away from our fears and doubts about who we are.

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.

Amen

Beams and Splinters

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged.
For as you judge, so will you be judged,
and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
How can you say to your brother,
‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’
while the wooden beam is in your eye?
You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

The Gospel according to St. Matthew 7:1-5

Jesus begins his discourse with the words, stop judging. The judging Jesus refers to is the kind of judging that arises from our disordered nature! It is how we narrow our vision in our myopic measure of others. This instruction Jesus gives rightly orders our thoughts and motives by exposing our jump-to-conclusion assumptions about what is happening around us. The love and mercy of Jesus extend to us, and the wisdom and counsel of his Holy Spirit can free us of the wooden beam of self-preoccupation. Spiritual discernment in the tradition of The Church helps us discern the bitterroot of a judgmental spirit that fester from disordered pride, fear, or anger.

Jesus, who knows our minds better than we do, uses the metaphor– wooden beam and splinter–to magnify how disordered we become when we ignore what God desires for us to love him by loving others. God said to his people in the Old Testament:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

The mandate remained the same when God took on flesh as our Savior to show us how to love. A lawyer came to Jesus and put a question to Jesus. He asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But apparently, the lawyer got a little uncomfortable about how far he had to go to love people, so he asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? The same answer Jesus offers to the man, he offers to our question on how to remove the wooden beam in our eye: extend mercy to everyone!

The command to love is continued through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as he counsels the apostles as they write letters to The Early Church. St. Paul writes to the Galatians,

 ..You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Galatians 5:15

Do thoughts about others ever consume you? Do you ever forget to remember to love others or keep your mouth shut? Stand in line! The best advice on how to love was given to me by a friend recently who quoted St. Paul, “We are called to bear witness to Christ’s love, grace, and mercy.” Those words are changing my perspective on some significant relationships in my life. Another question she recommended I answer was: Are they doing this because they are strong or weak? Allowing the Holy Spirit to grant us insight into our relationships brings order to our disordered judgments.

St. Thomas Aquinas penned, To love is to will the good of the other. To arrive at this response can be glacial, but it can happen through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, transforming our perceptions of others and our self-perception. The saying goes, hurt people, hurt people; the hurt we have endured from others may blind us with the wooden beam of a harsh spirit. And, it follows, that the pain the other has endured may cause them to react to us harshly.

Often a felt-grievance is based on the human error of reacting to an unfair word or action in a relationship. We see it all around us; we see it in ourselves. Someone must stop the dysfunction in our relationships; Jesus clearly states it begins with us. I know how difficult it can be! The wooden beam is often tightly wrapped with pain caused by those closest to us resulting from generational dysfunction. Or it can simply be the colliding with others that’s common in the crowded world we live. The particulars of how we get to the place of having a judgmental spirit don’t matter; the response must always be the same–We are to bear witness to Christ’s love. Samuel Johnson wrote, “Kindness is in our power even when fondness is not.” Indeed! You may be thinking thoughts I think when once again I’ve been burned by the same person in the same way–it’s even too hard to feel kind, let alone respond kindly. But here’s the thing, Jesus Christ’s very nature is kindly, and his actions bore that truth out. While we struggle to endure someone’s presence in our lives, Christ, in us, can love through us even when it is hard to feel kind.

Friend, the LORD God, in His abundant love and infinite mercy for us, stands beside us, waiting for us to allow his Holy Spirit to gently remove the wooden beam from the eyes of our soul. He knows how the wooden beam got planted in our eyes. He knows why we struggle as we live alongside other people who also have wooden beams in their eyes!

Holy God, your command to love others is real hard sometimes! Grant us the depth of love you have for us as we extend your love to others.

Jesus, our Saviour, fix our gaze on the Wooden Beam of the Cross that you willingly suffered and died upon for our sake. Grant us the courage to get over ourselves and move through the power of your Cross at work in us!

Holy Spirit of God, give us discernment and wisdom as we live beside others. Grant us new eyes to see and new ears to hear.

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.

Amen

The Little Foxes Steel the Vine

The Old Testament reading for Mass today is well worth our consideration. As is The Church’s way, we are offered the daily scripture readings that require more than a cursory glimpse, for in keeping with the Sacred Tradition of the Church–all of Sacred Scripture is written for our salvation. As we open our spirit to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration contained in the written word, we are tutored on how to live the virtues in order to fight the good fight against the vices of sinful thought that can lead to sinful actions which are on display in the narrative of Ahab and Jezebel. So, with that in mind, let’s examine the reading to discover what the Holy Spirit desires to accomplish in our thoughts, motives, and actions.

If you have been following the daily readings in the Old Testament, then you know much of the backstory of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. I bet you already know today’s recorded event won’t end well for them. Ahab and Jezebel refused to accept God’s authority over them by acting on the many vices that festered in their spirits. Those actions eventually led to a messy ending for them where God’s justice was served. Let’s pick up the narrative of I Kings 21: 1-17 as the extent of their spiritual disease reveals their evil; I will paraphrase parts of the lengthy narrative.

Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel
next to the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria.
Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard to be my vegetable garden,
since it is close by, next to my house.
I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or,
if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.”
Naboth answered him, “The LORD forbid
that I should give you my ancestral heritage.”
Ahab went home disturbed and angry..
.

[Ahab seethed in his anger, complaining to his wife Jezebel]

His wife Jezebel came to him and said to him,
“Why are you so angry that you will not eat?”

[I wanted something Naboth had and he wouldn’t give it to me!]

His wife Jezebel said to him,
“A fine ruler over Israel you are indeed!
Get up.
Eat and be cheerful.
I will obtain the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you.”

[Jezebel used the power of Ahab’s office as king to plot against Naboth with lies and accusations to paint him into a corner that he would not be able to get out of alive]

And they
[the bribed accusers] led Naboth out of the city and stoned him to death.
Then they sent the information to Jezebel
that Naboth had been stoned to death.

[Jezebel went in to the king with the “good” news]

“Go on, take possession of the vineyard
of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you,
because Naboth is not alive, but dead.”
On hearing that Naboth was dead, Ahab started off on his way
down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite,
to take possession of it.

Such evil people! Such duplicity! Such injustice! But wait, let’s consider the heart and soul of Ahab and Jezebel. A small parable comes to mind from another Old Testament book; The Song of Solomon 2:15. It reads:

Catch us the foxes,
    the little foxes,
that damage the vineyards—
    for our vineyards are in blossom.

The putridity of Ahab and Jezebels’ behavior reveals that somewhere along the way, they had little foxes that snuck into their minds and began to damage them from the inside out. Those little foxes had names: pride, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, and envy: the seven vices. Those vices motivated their actions and ended in God’s judgment against them.

This is why The Church keeps the Sacred Scripture ever before us. This is why our Triune God sends his Holy Spirit into our lives to grant us his wisdom to live our lives. The Holy Spirit gifts us so that we may fight against the vice that motivates us to act unjustly toward another. Because of Christ’s Passion for us, we can confess those vices and be forgiven. Because of Christ’s resurrection from death, hell, and the grave, we can be strengthened in virtue and transformed to live in the abundance of a well-tended vineyard!

How does the vineyard of your soul look today? Are their little foxes running amuck in your heart and mind? If you are anything like me, friend, you regularly have to walk the wall of your vineyard looking for the holes that allow the little foxes into your soul. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us as we examine the wall, giving us the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, helping us repair what has broken down in us. The Church comes alongside us, as well, to give us the Sacrament of Confession and the Daily Examine as tools for the repair. Sometimes I need to do minute-by-minute examinations of my thoughts and motivations; do you feel me? I invite you to pray with me the prayer of examen with the seven vices with the seven virtues.

Triune God, please grant me your humbleness to remove my prideful self-promoting thoughts and actions.

Grant me your purity and self-restraint to remove my lustful striving after more; for excess.

Grant me your patience to remove my judgmental assumptions that lead to an angry spirit.

Grant me your temperance to remove my gluttonous consumption of all the distractions that I use to ignore the sickness in my soul.

Grant me your kindness to remove the envy of others that traps me in comparisons, jealousy, and self-loathing.

Grant me your forbearance to remove the sloth of spirit that causes me to sink under the weight of what I perceive is demanded of me or causes me to despair that I will never change.

I ask this, 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.

Amen