November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent

                                 Mother Rebecca's Chapter Talk for the First Sunday of Advent

Is 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7 and Mk 13:33-37
  The theme on the First Sunday of Advent is always about waiting.  Today’s readings show how essential knowing our self and knowing God is, if we are going to wait properly.  The images in the first reading, as well as what is nuanced in the gospel, show some unpleasant concepts of how we can see our self and God:   “Behold you are angry”, we are “sinful like polluted rags”, we are like “withered leaves”, God hides his face from us leaving us in our guilt, and we need to be on guard because we do not know when the master will return.

            If we see God as an angry or demanding master, we won’t be waiting for him in hope but in fear.  There are two ways to wait – in a hope that saves or in a fear that destroys.   To wait in fear is anxiety; to wait in hope is anticipation.   So who we wait for will decide how we wait. The same could be said regarding our self.   If I see myself as worthless and unclean than I won’t be expecting a lot of good things to come my way. 

            So let’s look at a few people in Scripture who can show us how to wait properly.  Obviously we can begin with Mary.  Pope Benedict said that Advent is like a prolonged, stretched out Annunciation.  We sit with Mary and ponder, prepare, and pray.  She is a pure model of patience through her love which opened her to receive the Holy Spirit.  We know almost nothing of Simeon and Anna other than that they were waiting in the temple for the Lord to come.  They are a model of patience through their hope which was fed by worship and prayer.  Then there was the paralytic at the pool who waited 38 years before being healed.  He is a model of patience through his faith which was accompanied by great humility.  So, we wait in patience through faith, hope and love.  This can only be accomplished through being open to the Holy Spirit, through worship and prayer, and with great humility.

            But there were also great people in Scripture who were not very good at waiting.  Abraham got impatient waiting for the Lord to act and so he hurried and took Hagar as a second wife.  Moses got impatient and hit the rock twice losing his admittance into the Holy Land.  I remember in college we had to read the Book of Genesis (Mythology class) and I did what I always did when having to read a book for school…I searched for the cliff notes!  Panic hit when there were none to be found and so I had to actually read the book!  In my impatience I wanted a shortcut.   

            It is hard to be patient.  I think one of the reasons is because we walk more often by sight rather than by faith.  God assures us that he is busy on our behalf but we still want to see something happen.  Yet God’s delays are not denials.  They are usually the means which God uses to prepare us for something better.  God is always at work for the good in us and in all things.  The only way God can teach us patience is to test and try us, and the only way we can learn patience is to surrender to God who is in all things.  “God can grow a mushroom overnight yet He takes His time to grow an oak tree.”   Some things in life just need waiting.  It took Joseph 13 years to be ready to handle Pharaoh’s estate.  It took God’s chosen people 40 years to cross the desert. David was anointed king when still a youth but he had to suffer much before taking the throne. 

            Perhaps the hardest place to be patient is in the furnace of suffering.  God does not always explain what He is doing or why He is doing it.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us when we suffer it is the time to “imitate those who through faith and patience (have) inherit(ed) the promises.” (6:12)   Knowing that the Father is near us and that He is working out His wonderful purposes ought to encourage us, but we often get impatient just the same. 

            A person once complained to her pastor, “Why has God made me this way”?   He replied “God has not made you – he is making you”!   It reminds me of the image in today’s first reading:  “we are the clay, you are the potter”.  Earlier in the Book of Isaiah the prophet uses an image of a disgruntled pot who argues with the potter who created him. (Ch 29:16)  We can see the irony and humor of a lump of clay, impatient with the potter’s work, and so disowns him.  To cut off from the potter’s hands is to remain a lump of clay – without beauty or usefulness.  If we can be peaceful in His Hands, we have become a patient disciple, open to accept and do His will. 

            The problem with this school of patience is that we never graduate.  We are always learning, always maturing.  Sometimes we fail the examination even before we know what the lesson is.  No matter; our loving Father is guiding us and making us more like His beloved Son, and that is all that does matter!

            I would like to read a poem by Ann Lewin that I think captures this virtue of patience. 

Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher.

All you can do is be there where he is likely to appear,

And wait.

Often nothing much happens;

There is space, silence and Expectancy.

No visible sign, only the

Knowledge that he’s been there

And may come again.

Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,

You have been prepared

But when you’ve almost stopped

Expecting it, a flash of brightness

Gives encouragement.

            This can be another great model of what our Advent waiting can be.  All you can do is be there where he is likely to appear and wait.  Often nothing much happens then suddenly a flash of brightness gives encouragement. 

            So this Advent Season is a time for waiting in faith, hope, and love.  There are no shortcuts or cliff notes to a spiritual life.  All in God’s time and to His purposes.  So let us be encouraged by Mary, Simeon, Anna, and the paralytic this Season and wait for the Holy Spirit, in worship and prayer, and great humility.

November 30, 2014: 1st Sunday Advent

**(Some ideas from Warren Weirsbe: God is not in a Hurry

November 20, 2014

Commentary on the Rule of Benedict

 Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Mother Rebecca

Vs 33-34:Prologue  That is why the Lord says in the Gospel:  whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon rock;  the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall: it was founded on rock.”

                There are many different ways in which we use the word foundation.  There is a foundation for buildings which is necessary for stability and long-term support.  There is a foundation on which organizations or institutes are created and these are necessary for its direction and meaning.  Then we also talk about a foundation of knowledge which is necessary for greater learning and growth.  Different kinds of foundations give different things:  stability and support; direction and meaning; or teaching and the capacity for expansion.  Without a foundation a house cannot stand, an organization cannot meet its goals, and an intellect cannot grow.  Yet when we speak of Christ as our foundation we encompass all these aspects.  Through Christ we have stability, support, direction, meaning, teaching, and growth. 

            Christ is our foundation and Rock – that is, Christ gives us steady and unchanging support.  We often hear about poorly constructed houses or bridges which result in unnecessary high death tolls in natural disasters.  When Charlene was in China there was a relatively small earthquake yet thousands died because the apartments were built cheaply.   Yet in San Francisco a substantial earthquake can cause only slight damage.   This is because they build in stress factors so buildings and bridges can sway w/o breaking.   So laying a foundation is no time for shortcuts or loopholes.   We can also say how essential our initial formation is to create a good, solid foundation and practices that will help us stay constant in times of stress, upheaval, or crisis. 

            Christ is our foundation and Rock - that is Christ gives us direction and purpose.  Michael Casey said there are two things that are needed for a steady life.  Steadiness needs purpose (or meaning) and it needs direction.   In other words, the why and how of monastic life should be continually asked.  Why have I come?...asks meaning and purpose.  But we also need to ask ‘How do I get there?’  We need to stay steady to our prayer, manual work, charity, our vows, and our personal relationship with Christ.  If we build on this rock of stability and fidelity, then we will stand firm, otherwise we will collapse in the smallest of storms.   The only foundation that will work in this life is a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ - and that grows thru the years…a relationship that must be steady, never static.  Willpower will not change us, but following our Rule’s observances - prayer, work, and study…obedience, stability, and conversion…lectio, liturgy, and love – these will open us to transformation.   It is a call to single-mindedness or single-heartedness.  Like a camera that has a macro lens:  When it zooms in and focuses on one thing, everything else becomes blurred.  The focal point becomes intensified…all other things are no longer distractions.  {Whether we are at candy, St Ben’s, infirmary, or kitchen our purpose is the same:  to magnify the Lord.  We magnify Christ by being a joyful, gently, loving, and peaceful presence wherever we are or whatever we are doing.}

            Christ is our foundation and Rock – that is Christ is our teacher and helps us to grow.  So besides initial formation as an extremely important foundation for our monastic life, there is also a need for on-going formation – we must continue to be docile and open to the Spirit so we can learn and expand our minds and our hearts in knowledge and love.

            I would like to take this opportunity to talk a little about what St Bernard says about study He says we study not so we can teach or produce something but in order to bring us closer to God.  Everything we do in monastic life is to this purpose.  Monastic study, one of our 3 components, is not academic it is personal growth in knowing Christ and what He desires.  This is the reason why what we chose to read is important.  Bernard speaks about 5 different motives for why we seek knowledge and why we study:

1  To seek knowledge for its own sake he calls shameful curiosity,

2  To seek knowledge for one's reputation he calls vanity,

3  To seek knowledge for honor or ambition he calls profiteering,

4  To seek knowledge for one's spiritual benefit he calls prudence, and

5  To seek knowledge in order to serve he calls love.

So our gaining of knowledge, and our studies, can be evaluated by asking “how has this helped me to love God more deeply?”  Notice that we are speaking about a knowledge that leads to love.  Bernard says “to learn in order to build is charity; to learn in order to be built is humility”.  He adds, study “aims at loving God and molding one's life in wisdom.”

So let us be like that wise person who built on rock.  In doing so we may want to ask if there is anything in my life that makes my foundation shaky…are there any areas I need to let grow or to let go?   When the stress or storms come do I stay steady in my prayer and monastic routine?  If so, we can truly say we are building our house on that solid rock, which is Christ.

November 18, 2014

Commentary on the Rule of Benedict

Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Mother Rebecca

Verses 31-32 of the prologue:  In just this way, Paul the Apostle refused to take credit for the power of his preaching.  He declared: By God’s grace I am what I am”.  And again he said:  He who boasts should make his boast in the Lord.”

            In four consecutive verses St Benedict has repeated six times one specific teaching:  “they praise God working in them”, “not to us but to your name give the glory”, “by God’s grace I am what I am”, “He who boast should make his boast in God”, “judge it as the Lord’s power and not their own”, and “refuse to take credit for the power”.  Benedict seems to be perhaps a bit worried that his monks will see their works and power as their own and thus “fall headlong” into vainglory.

            Michael Casey says we do not need to be doing anything in particular to be in union with God but rather allow all things to bring us to that loving stance.  Spiritual progress can be measured by our ability to integrate our work and our prayer until our entire life becomes a single unending prayer – a channel for God to do His works of Love.  How are we doing in this crucial spiritual task?  How will I reveal that Love today?  Casey says (quote) “It is good to practice self-denial and to give interval time to prayer but this is no excuse for ignoring appropriate relationships, the obligations of work, and the demands charity makes.  Spiritual growth is not registered by the strict observances and needing time for this or that but rather spiritual progress is habitually seen in growth in availability, in a certain lightness of being, and in simple, uncomplicated happiness”.   So another way we can measure our monastic growth is by the measure of our freedom to be available in community and its daily demands.  This reminds me of a statement from Walter Kasper that has stuck with me since my novitiate days.  His stated that “true freedom means availability”! 

            We often attribute our inability to find inner rest or the freedom to be available to external causes.  But the truth is that if we are unable to find this inner freedom, it is because of a divided heart, not because of all the things we need to do.  It is a lack of integration of our work and prayer.  Gandhi said “we will never find rest, even alone in solitude, if we are anxious, turbulent, curious, or even overzealous!”   We are called not to avoid things that disturb us but to learn not to let anything disturb us.  There is a big difference between these two approaches.   Benedict has told us several times in the Prologue that our main task is not to swell the ego but to expand the heart!   Virtue can only grow in humility; vice always grows in vainglory no matter how good the work. 

            Timothy Radcliffe said “When we pray, we are liberated from the terrible burden of thinking that we are tremendously important, and that everything depends on us.  This is not a license for irresponsibility but a prerequisite of proper responsibility.  Adam and Eve lost the joy of paradise because they did not trust in God whose only desire was to give them more than they could desire.  They grabbed at the fruit because they would not let God be God and so destroyed their own happiness.”

            Hildemar, who wrote the first known commentary on the Rule back in the 800’s, said “it is called a grace because it is given for naught. Whenever you use the word grace, you exclude all merit”.  The Apostle Paul says in his 1st letter to the Corinthians that “the grace of God was not in vain in me” [1 Cor 15:10].   Again he says in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians “We encourage you, brothers, not to receive God’s grace in vain” [2 Cor 6:1].  How does one receive God’s grace in vain?  Hildemar answers, “You have received baptism but if you do not live according to baptism, you have received God’s grace in vain. Again: you received the gift of obedience: if you do not show obedience, you have received the grace of God in vain.”  You have received the gift of humility: if you are not humble, you have received God’s grace in vain.   We see that God’s only desire is to give us more than we can desire.  A  joy complete.  Have I received that grace of joy in vain?  Or is there any grace that I have been given for naught that I am wasting? 

            I read a story (by Wayne Muller, Sabbath) about a friend of Henri Nouwen who was reading an article in The New Yorker and came across Henri’s name.  It seemed Hillary Clinton had been reading his writings on gratefulness and forgiveness.  So he called Henri to ask about it.  Henri told him that he had been invited to go to the White House to be a spiritual counselor.  While he was appreciative of the Clinton’s request and while the White House invitation seemed to be a recognition of the importance of spiritual masters, he nevertheless sent his apologies, and did not go.  “I don’t want to be the court chaplain”, he said, “I am here with Adam, my disabled friend.   There are others who can go to the White House.  Adam needs me.”  Henri was not boasting in himself but recognized his call was to a disabled child.  I wonder if Adam ever knew that he was chosen over the President of the United States.  Did Adam know how important he was, confined to a wheelchair and needing constant care?  

            But to bring this closer to home, do we, like Henri, see our life in community in this manner?   Do I realize that I am where I am meant to be – that God has called me to be who I am here at OLM?  There are no splashes here but there are those in need around me that I am called to serve and to love.  Stability in my community life is all the boasting I have and it all goes to God who called me to this wonderful, yet hidden and humble, vocation. 

            So let us take heed of St Benedict’s teaching for we can only find peace in our soul, and be a flowing channel of God’s love, when we can say with joy and gratitude “By God’s grace I am what I am.”

Commentary on the Rule of Benedict

 Reflection on the Rule of St. Benedict  by: Mother Rebecca

Verses 29-30 of the Prologue: “Those who fear the Lord are not elated by their good observance, but consider that the good things in them cannot have come about from themselves but are from the Lord. And so they magnify the Lord working in them, saying with the prophet: ‘Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory. ”
            In Give Us This Day awhile back there was a write up on Johann Sebastian Bach.  The summary said that at the end of each of his compositions he would put the initials “S.D.G.” “Soli Deo Gloria” or “to God alone the glory”!  He seemed to have gotten this precept of St Benedict down pat. 

            However my tendency in good works is to initial them, of course with “SDG”, but I like to add “RS” too!  At times I like to take some credit too.  But is my good work really my work or only a measure of my openness to God working within me?!  This attitude develops only from a healthy relationship with God through prayer.

            Another person who captured this stance well was M Teresa.  There is a funny story of Pope John Paul II giving M Teresa’s nuns some space to build a home for the elderly right up against the walls of the papal audience chamber.  A senior Vatican archbishop came to preach at the ceremony of its inauguration, attended by M Teresa.  The Archbishop spoke for about 2 minutes of the kindness and generosity of John Paul who gave the land and buildings to her.  But suddenly there was an interruption from the front row.  M Teresa smiled and pointed her finger up in the air and said “We must thank the Lord first!”  The archbishop was embarrassed, smiled, and then continued his prepared homily but M Teresa kept pointing her finger straight up into the air whispering “The Lord…The Lord first!”  I love that story and her bold yet simple truth – she also got this precept of St Benedict down pat.

            To be congratulated or acknowledged for our good deeds is a way in which we can build up our self-esteem, but this can be dangerous.  What if the affirmation and gratitude doesn’t come?  Then we will be depressed at not being appreciated and will begin feeling badly about our self.  The reason is because we did not quite understand this precept of St Benedict.  The desire and energy behind a good work is so that God can be recognized in our midst – to bring the kingdom of God into the world.  To do this I must be transparent and other centered.  However, we learn as children if we do good, we win the love of parents and significant others and we feel good about ourselves.  So it is an easy trap to fall into.   But we need to unlearn this dynamic in order to be steady and persevere in our good works.  St Bernard said if the gift is not for God’s glory then there is no glory at all!

            Our Constitutions state “Only if the sister prefer nothing whatever to Christ will she be happy to persevere in a life that is ordinary, hidden, and laborious”.  Our prayers for peace in the world, healing for the sick, comfort for the lonely…are the hidden works of our cloistered life.  But also the hidden acts of charity throughout the day – removing bread crumbs from the counter, fidelity to our studies, a smile, cleaning the sink for the next person – all these can give God glory.  Br Lawrence says even picking up a piece of straw in His name (or a dust ball in the cloister) can become a hidden work for God.  It is so simple - if we are mindful…if our hearts are full of love.  Opportunities are plentiful – even infinite!  Yet we are lucky sometimes if we recognize 1 or 2 in our day.  We have to work to train our mind and our eyes to see these hidden invitations to love.

            So today’s verse is a call to reflect on why I desire to do loving deeds and practice good observance.  This answer will determine my motives but also give me the strength to persevere in love and good works.  Today our mantra can be just what Benedict is telling us:  “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory.”