The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Choosing the wise path

Just as Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness (cf. Luke 4:1-13), each of one of us is tempted on a daily basis to choose the ways of the world over the ways of God. What are the ways of the world? Primarily, “worldly wisdom” teaches that health and wealth, success, and influence (or power) are the ultimate values in life. We want to be disease- and injury-free, prosperous, triumphant, and in control of not only our own destinies, but often those of other people and events as well.

It is neither wrong nor evil to have or experience such things. What really matters is to what extent these gifts are valued by us, how they’re obtained, and how they are put to use. Each of these things, depending on our interior motivations and attachments, can be either the means of honoring God or foolishly forsaking him by making them idols.

The truly wise one, according to our Christian faith, is the one who recognizes that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). This is not a cowering, servile fear. It is grateful recognition of God as the Giver of all good gifts, and ourselves as his stewards and ambassadors responding in love to his divine goodness.

Choosing the wisdom of God also is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but an ongoing struggle to discern and act rightly. As Scripture scholar and author Barbara Bowe pointed out in her book Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, “In the daily rhythms of life each one must choose between the ways of the wise and the ways of the foolish. In choosing the wise path, we choose the path of life.”

These choices are laid out in front of us every day in myriad ways. Each day, we must make constant choices as to whether to serve oneself or serve others out of love for Christ. Strengthened by that love, let us answer the temptation to act according to the world’s ways with the same words Jesus spoke to combat the devil in the wilderness: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Excerpted from Grace in the Wilderness:
by Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B., Abbey Press, 2013

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lenten mercy

What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast ... may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.

There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not ... The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
--St. Leo the Great

More about the Jubilee of Mercy logo

The logo and the motto together provide a fitting summary of what the Jubilee Year is all about. The motto Merciful Like the Father (taken from the Gospel of Luke, 6:36) serves as an invitation to follow the merciful example of the Father who asks us not to judge or condemn but to forgive and to give love and forgiveness without measure (cf. Lk 6:37-38). The logo – the work of Jesuit Father Marko I. Rupnik – presents a small summa theologiae of the theme of mercy. In fact, it represents an image quite important to the early Church: that of the Son having taken upon his shoulders the lost soul demonstrating that it is the love of Christ that brings to completion the mystery of his incarnation culminating in redemption.

The logo has been designed in such a way so as to express the profound way in which the Good Shepherd touches the flesh of humanity and does so with a love with the power to change one’s life. One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ. Every person discovers in Christ, the new Adam, one’s own humanity and the future that lies ahead, contemplating, in his gaze, the love of the Father.

The scene is captured within the so called mandorla (the shape of an almond), a figure quite important in early and medieval iconography, for it calls to mind the two natures of Christ, divine and human. The three concentric ovals, with colors progressively lighter as we move outward, suggest the movement of Christ who carries humanity out of the night of sin and death. Conversely, the depth of the darker color suggests the impenetrability of the love of the Father who forgives all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

How do deal with difficult people

What NOT to do in the Year of Mercy (or any other time).

We all must deal with difficult people from time to time, or even regularly. They're in our families, workplaces, parishes and congregations. They're everywhere--even in monasteries! And, if we are humble enough to be honest, we'll admit that we each encounter one in the mirror every day. All of us are at least occasionally difficult, often due to factors such as stress, fatigue, or ingrained behavior patterns of which we're not even aware. There is a saying that circulates in the monastery from time to time, a reminder of each and every person's brokenness and need for mercy: "On the day you die, at least one person will be relieved." That is true, I believe, for us all.

However, it is also true that there are certain people among us who are chronically, notoriously, and especially difficult. And we have no choice but to find a way to live, work, or otherwise deal with them on a regular basis. Just how do we go about that? We're all pretty good at desiring mercy for ourselves, but it's much more difficult to extend it to others--especially when they seem so undeserving and like, well, total jerks.

The photo above depicts how we often feel about such a person, someone with whom we've simply had it up to here. And it's fine to feel that way. But don't act on that feeling! Either in actions or words. There's too much of that in the world already--either righteous or unrighteous anger begetting more anger and violence. As Scripture says, "Be angry, but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26).

Instead, in this Year of Mercy promulgated by Pope Francis, let us take our cue from Jesus. He certainly had his share of difficult people with which to contend. Flip through the gospels, and you'll note that it wasn't just the Pharisees who proved a constant source of aggravation. The apostles and even his own relatives and friends could be quite difficult at times. In fact, the instances are quite numerous.

But how did Jesus respond? For this, I invite you to reflect on a wonderfully insightful -- yet short and concise -- article on the subject written by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, titled "5 Ways Jesus Dealt with Difficult People." You can read it here. 

I suggest that what the author outlines would be an excellent Lenten exercise of extending Christlike mercy in ways that are very concrete and possibly life-transforming for all involved. I may incorporate them into my own Lenten observance.

Jesus shows us how to deal with difficult people. As a human being, he surely felt at times like whacking someone upside the head, screaming obscenities, or quietly seething while plotting revenge. But he didn't. As Son of God, he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (42), who wrote:
He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice.
What's more, he didn't run away and hide from all the difficult people, even when they badly mistreated him. Rather, he tried, firmly but gently, to engage all people he encountered--simply because he knew that all need healing. He is the Good Shepherd, who says, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). He came to save, not destroy. He came to embody mercy.

As Pope Francis writes in his Lenten message this year: "God shows himself ever rich in mercy, ever ready to treat his people with deep tenderness and compassion ... Here is a true love story, in which God plays the role of the betrayed father and husband ... This love story culminates in the incarnation of God's Son. In Christ, the Father pours forth his boundless mercy even to make him 'mercy incarnate.' ... God's mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn." (To read Pope Francis' entire message for Lent, click here.)

Jesus, embodying mercy, engages others in all their obstinacy, brokenness, and difficulty. As Sr. Theresa Aletheia illustrates with specific passages from Scripture, he asks challenging questions, he stands his ground, he knows when to walk away, he does not "people-please," and he is flexible. What he does not do is retaliate or close himself off from others. He simply invites--but never forces--others to see the genuine love and concern he has for them. And once someone who is chronically, notoriously, and especially difficult comes to accept and believe in God's love for him or her, despite all acknowledged faults, then mercy has captured another heart. And there are a few instances of such conversions depicted in the gospels.

As Christ's Body, we are called each day to extend the same kind of mercy--even to the most difficult among us. Especially to the most difficult among us. The invitation goes both ways. It comes from the Holy Spirit, and promises life to all difficult persons. And remember, we're all difficult from time. This wonderful gift comes from a God who loves us so much that he literally reduces himself to the point that he literally places himself in our difficult human hands.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Bearing the Flame

Today’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord, while understated, is one of my favorites during the liturgical year. Recalling Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the child Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth while pointing toward the light of the Resurrection, the Living God manifests himself to the eyes of the faithful Simeon. Likewise, Christ comes to meet his faithful people today in the temple of the heart through the Holy Spirit conferred at baptism. Welcoming him in joyful prayer, praise, and perseverance, the life of Christ radiates out to the world.

We began our celebration at Mass this morning with the blessing and lighting of candles, which we then carried as we processed through the church (one reason the feast has the name Candlemas). The Gospel read during Mass for the feast, of course, is Luke 2:22-40, which contains the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:29-31), which we chant every night at Compline (one of the reasons that office is probably my favorite):

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace:
your word has been fulfilled:

My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.

One reason this feast is special to me personally is because it was on this day (10 years ago, now!) that after a long period of prayer and discernment, I worked up the courage to tell my employers at The Blade newspaper in Toledo, Ohio, that I was seriously looking at leaving and taking up the monastic way of life (many were shocked!). It was an important step—but probably more so for me than for The Blade. On that day in 2006, commending myself to the Mother of God, I signaled in concrete form my intentions not only to my employer, but more importantly, to myself. Unless I did that, I probably wasn’t going anywhere. Though at that time I didn't know I was coming to Saint Meinrad, and still had a house, etc., seven months later I was here.

May each of us, in responding to God’s particular call for our lives, be encountered and enflamed by Christ, who is the Light of the World!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Turn, turn, turn

Archabbot Justin DuVall


There has certainly been a lot going on around here lately--though you wouldn't know it from my blog, would you?

That's OK. This blog is more about prayer and reflection than it is about the latest news and up-to-date commentary. Still, I hope to post more often here in the near future. In the meantime, a little catalog for catching up, in case you hadn't heard:

  • Fr. Archabbot Justin DuVall on January 13 announced his resignation, effective with the election of the next abbot--scheduled for June 2. The election will take place after an extensive period of discussion and discernment (unlike secular politics). For those of you who wonder, according to the Constitution and Statutes of the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation (of which Saint Meinrad is a member), "to be eligible as abbot, the religious must be a monk of the electing monastery who is not deprived of his passive voice; he must be a priest, perpetually professed for five years, and 35 years of age."

    To learn more about the Abbot's announcement, I invite you to read the articles on the Saint Meinrad Archabbey website and the The Criterion website from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

    Archabbot Justin's decision likely came as a surprise to many, though he recently entered his 12th year in office. It's not an easy job, to be sure. In the linked articles above, he explains the reasoning and timing of his decision. Basically, after a long period of prayer and discernment, he feels that both he and the monastic community are in a good position for a change in leadership.

    By the help of God's grace and with the support of many, Archabbot Justin has accomplished much during his tenure. Many on the "outside" will point to the building and renovation projects that have been completed on his watch, which have strengthened and enhanced Saint Meinrad's standing in the eyes of those who come here to study, learn, pray, rest, celebrate, or otherwise seek God. To those of us on the "inside," however, I can assure you that his impact has been far, far greater. He has been an exceptional abbot, a faithful monk, and a generous human being who has displayed and/or dispensed much wisdom, discretion, and humility. And I'm not saying that because I have to (I am his secretary). I don't have to, and wouldn't if it weren't true.

    There are, to be sure, a lot of heavy but grateful hearts both on the Hill and beyond. We wish him well as he finishes his days of service as abbot, as he takes some well-deserved rest, and as he continues his journey as a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

  • On Wednesday evening, at I Vespers of the solemnity of our holy patron Saint Meinrad, four -- yes FOUR! -- of our novices made their first profession. It's been a while since we've had a group such as that making their vows all at once. One of the things that makes first profession so exciting is that the professed take on new religious names. So, with that in mind:

    --Novice Timothy Herrmann = Br. Simon
    --Novice Peter Szidik = Br. Nathaniel
    --Novice Jonathan Blaize = Br. Joel
    --Novice Thomas Fish = Br. Jean

    You can read more about each one of them here. Four very fine young monks. May God strengthen and guide them as they continue to discern the monastic way of life.

  • And, if that isn't enough, on Tuesday evening before Vespers, we also welcomed a new novice into the community -- Joshua Leeuw. You can read more about him here. May he find peace as he seeks God in this place.

    We now have 10 junior monks in temporary vows -- TEN! -- as well as two novices. God and Chapter willing, three of the juniors will make their solemn profession this coming summer. Please keep them all in your prayers, and please pray for additional vocations to this way of life and this monastery in particular. And please pray for those of us who are already committed as solemnly professed monks, that we may always be faithful to our generous and merciful God's call. Most especially, pray for this community as it begins the process of electing a new abbot. May the Holy Spirit be our guide. Our Lady of Einsiedeln, pray for us! St. Benedict and St. Meinrad, pray for us!

  • As for me personally, I was able to spend a week or so right after Christmas with my family and friends in Ohio and West Virginia. It was especially fun to witness my 3-year-old nephew Evan's excitement and wonder during those days. He is obsessed with the movie The Polar Express. We only had to watch it three or four times during our short visit. He especially likes the "hot chocolate scene," and insists on a mug of the steaming beverage (with marshmallows) after coming in from the cold and snow.

    Tomorrow (January 24), I celebrate the feast of my holy patron, St. Francis de Sales. Incidentally, on that date every year, the Pope issues his message for World Communications Day (St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of authors and journalists). Pope Francis' latest message, for the 50th such event, is worth reading, even if you are not an author or journalist. He addresses all those who communicate--which includes each one of us. It is titled "Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter." You can read it here.

    Finally, this coming week, I will be in class all day for the post-practicum course in the School of Theology's three-year Spiritual Direction Graduate Certificate program. This will fulfill my requirements for the certificate. So, I am looking forward to that.

Peace be to all. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

My nephew Evan sporting his 'tache' de chocolat.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Promise of the plain, old, ordinary

It’s back: Ordinary Time. Christmas and Advent are over. January, February, and March stretch out before us. Lent is just around the corner … What are we to make of it all?

The liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter provide us with much to anticipate and celebrate in terms of our Christian faith. But how do we live that out the rest of the year? Ordinary Time, after all, comprises well over half of the year. Feasts and solemnities aside, for the most part we are called to find Christ in the day-to-day, unremarkable, ordinariness of human living.

A passage from Mark’s Gospel (9:14-29) offers some guidance in this regard, pointing us toward the importance of prayer and faith in our daily lives. Although it may be argued, on one level, that what Jesus does in this particular passage—healing a boy by expelling the demon tormenting him—is anything but ordinary, the overall message is one of entrusting everything to God through prayer and faith. After all, demons such as doubt, despair, spiritual idleness, and so many others are daily companions, tempting us to lose all hope in a God who seems absent or oblivious, as we aimlessly flail away, seemingly at the mercy of life’s frustrations and disappointments.

Such is the scene at the outset of this Gospel passage. Things are out of control. A man has brought his possessed son to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. However, regardless of what they try, nothing works. A fierce argument breaks out. This is the setting into which Jesus appears. After finding out what all the commotion is about, Jesus expresses exasperation with all of them. “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?”

But Jesus does not throw up his hands and simply walk away. “Bring [the boy] to me,” he says. When this is done, the spirit possessing him flings the boy into convulsions. His father says to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Once again, Jesus is taken aback. “If you are able!” he retorts. “All things can be done for the one who believes.” This is the key moment upon which the whole event turns. The father acknowledges his lack of faith while at the same time expressing an earnest desire for more faith. In other words, he prays.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” he says.

Jesus then expels the unclean spirit. Order is restored from chaos.

Later, when Jesus is alone with his disciples, they ask him why they were not able to do what he did. “This kind can come out only through prayer,” he responds.

Prayer expresses our faith. Other things (such as works of mercy) do as well, but prayer is foremost because it acknowledges our need to be in right relationship with God—it is our relationship with God. It is a lifelong rhythm of listening and responding to God’s call for conversion of heart—personally and communally.

Prayer is not a means by which we attempt to persuade God to give us this or that, or to do this or that. It is open, honest, full-hearted conversation with a God who loves us beyond measure, so that we may become our true selves in the divine image. We pray to be changed into who God wishes us to be—not orphans, but children of God.

Jesus instructs us to pray always, so as not to lose heart (Luke 18:1). Many times throughout the gospels, after expelling a demon or healing someone, his parting words are: “Your faith has saved you.” Wealth, honor, health, success, and so many other things are all well and good, as far as they go. And as dutiful Christians, we may strive for perfection to the point of exhaustion. But in the end, it is solely faith that saves us—faith in the unfathomable and ineffable mystery of God’s indisputable and merciful presence in our lives despite what the world’s values and circumstances seem to suggest. After all, as the Letter to the Hebrews famously states: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

So, we must pray as did the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith!”(Luke 17:5), or as did the possessed boy’s father: “I believe; help my unbelief!” These are honest expressions of acknowledged incompleteness. In them, we state our desire to be freed from whatever holds us back from God. Even when we are in the grips of the deepest doubt, we can confidently pray for more faith.

“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. True faith is a gift that cannot be refused to the one who prays for it. In this way, we find Christ in the day-to-day, unremarkable, ordinariness of human living. “Remember,” Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

So, let us pray—this day and every day, all day and for all days. Everything is possible to one who has faith—even grasping what seems just beyond our reach. Faith is what completes our joy, and as Christians, that is anything but ordinary.

"If you ask anything of the Father in my name,
he will give it to you. Ask and you will receive,
so that your joy may be complete."
John 16:23-24

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Arise! Shine, for your light has come

"By becoming man, the Word
renews the cosmic order of creation;
By coming into the world, the eternal Word
invites us to the feast of his light."
St. John Paul II

My earliest aspiration as a small child was to be an astronaut. Well, that obviously didn't come to fruition -- though it was fun to pretend going to the moon in spaceships constructed with kitchen chairs, blankets, and assorted cookware. That was in the late 60s and early 70s, when NASA's Apollo space program was still going. Space travel was still a relative novelty at that point. One of my earliest memories is watching on television the Apollo 11 mission of landing the first human beings on the moon in July 1969 (when I was nearly 4 years old). I was fascinated by it all.

NASA's "Blue Marble," 1972
Many of the photographs of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts and their forerunners are still breathtaking and very much suitable for contemplating "higher realities." Of course, in this age of satellite images and instant communication, such photographs are easily taken for granted today. Still, they remain as stunning and as historically significant as when they were first taken. The "Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 (shown alongside this post), is still one of the most recognizable images in history. Although portions of our planet had been previously captured on film by other Apollo missions and satellites (a rocket-launched camera provided our first partial view of Earth in 1946), the "Blue Marble" is the first "full-view" image of the Earth taken from space.

In any event, those years of space exploration afforded the human race its first opportunity to look back at itself as unique inhabitants of the same small planet within a seemingly endless universe. Such a "look in the mirror" can provide sorely needed proportion to our human struggles -- and hopefully, a sense of compassionate solidarity. Then, there are the even bigger questions -- "Who are we?" and "Where did all this come from?" and "What is the purpose?"

So, what does all this have to do with Christmas? Well, today we celebrate the incarnation of Christ, the birth of a Savior into this very world we inhabit, into this human history that is still unfolding. In that instant, with Christ later fulfilling from the cross his plan of redemption for all humankind, God "re-created" us after the pattern of the first creation, with a twist -- he became one of us. All God asks is that we accept within our hearts the gift of Light that he offers. Then, when Christ comes again, God will look upon all he has remade, and call it very good.

In 1968, the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission became the first to orbit the moon (they did not land). Thus, they were the first human beings to see the Earth from space as an entire planet, and the first to witness "earthrise," which they filmed. And on a special Christmas Eve television broadcast, the Apollo 8 astronauts shared this experience with the world while reading the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis (something that is unlikely to ever happen again). The video above replays this moment in our history and offers -- 47 years after it was recorded -- some images and thoughts still very much worthy of reflection. Indeed, for all of us who inhabit this strange planet in this vast universe, the Creator's words still echo and knock on the doors of our hearts: "Let there be Light!"

A Light-filled Christmas and joyful New Year to all.
May it all be very good!

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me
will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
John 8:12