Monday, February 23, 2015

What does repentance mean?

"Turn aside from evil and do good;
seek and strive after peace."
Psalm 34:15

NOTE: Each week during Lent, I will post a short reflection on the previous Sunday's Gospel passage--a little food for prayerful thought to go along with our fasting. -- Br. Francis.

In the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:12-15), Jesus begins his ministry by declaring, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." Repentance is a key theme during Lent, and Jesus here is calling each of us to do it--and to do it now.

But what does repentance really mean? Unfortunately, we have come to associate the term almost exclusively with struggling more intently against our sinful tendencies or weak natures. Figuratively speaking, with sorrowful hearts, we put on sackcloth and sit in ashes, like many Old Testament figures. During the season of Lent, this may take the form of "giving up" certain things which we acknowledge have too much influence over our daily lives--such as chocolate, watching TV, or engaging in gossip.

That is all fine and good--as long as the point is to grow in our love for God and neighbor. However, mere self-improvement, while commendable in itself, cannot be the point. Otherwise, "giving up" something for Lent risks becoming an exercise in willpower--with the focus entirely on self rather than on God.

That is not the true repentance Jesus calls us toward. Take a moment to read and reflect on the passage from Psalm 34 above: "Turn aside from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace." Or, consider Ephesians 4:22-32, which reads in part: "Put away the old self of your former way of life...and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth" (you may want to take a moment to read the passage in its entirety in your Bible). These passages hint at the full nature of repentance.

Notice that the admonitions are twofold: we are not only to "turn aside from evil" and "put away the old self," but also "do good; seek and strive after peace" and "put on the new self." In other words, we are called to become our true selves as children created in the image of God the Father. This is true repentance, as the Greek term metanoia in the original gospel texts suggests. Metanoia implies striving for a genuine change of heart, attitude, and direction in one's life. It means turning toward God in our daily lives.

So, true repentance during Lent is not just temporarily "giving up" something--with an eye toward self-improvement--that we will likely take back up again come Easter Sunday. Genuine repentance is associated with positive, lifelong transformation. During Lent, we focus more intently on becoming who we are called to be in Christ, on being renewed in the spirit of our minds, and on putting on the new self created in the image of God--now and forever.

During Lent, it is OK to strive to tame our sinful tendencies and weak natures by giving up something. But if we want to fully repent in the true spirit of the gospel, we must ask ourselves what we intend to "take up" in order to grow closer to God and our neighbor--in ways that are lasting and life-giving. Examples may include volunteering a little time each month to a local charity, committing oneself each week to a sustained period of Eucharistic adoration or quiet prayer, looking for ways to say something good about people we don't necessarily like all that much, spending more time with family, engaging daily in lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), making that visit we've been putting off to a sick/elderly relative or friend, asking God for the wisdom and strength to remedy an injustice against someone, inviting a lonely acquaintance to lunch or dinner, swallowing our pride and sincerely congratulating a colleague chosen over us for a much sought-after promotion, or seeking to be more patient and forgiving in daily interactions. Those are just a few possibilities--the choices are endless.

So, yes, as we repent, let us turn aside from every evil. But by God's grace, let us also do good, as we seek and strive after peace to become our true selves. There is no time to waste. As Jesus says, "This is the time of fulfillment." Let us fully repent, and not only believe the good news (of God's steadfast love and mercy) that Jesus proclaims, but be the good news by allowing ourselves to really be changed by it--not only for Lent, but for our entire lives.

"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me."
Luke 9:23

Monday, February 16, 2015

A prayer for Lent

A prayer for Lent based on this past Sunday's Gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45) -- with several other references as well...

Touch Us, Jesus

Jesus, as you feed us
with your Body,
make us one with you.

Heal our weary bodies,
our worried minds,
our wayward souls.

If you wish,
you can restore us,
make us clean.

Stretch out your hand
and touch our
and poverty.

Stretch out your hand
and touch our
and fear.

Stretch out your hand
and cure our
disordered desire,
and pride.

Through your sacrifice on the cross,
gather together in yourself
all that are lost or separated,
driven by hostility,
or choked by thorns.

Renew our faith, hope, and love.
Inspire in us self-restraint,
and integrity.

Grant us holy wisdom,
and awe for our Creator.

As you feed us
with your Body,
may your healing touch
produce in and among us:
decency, restraint, and humility;
faithfulness, gentleness, and generosity;
goodness, compassion, and patience;
peace, joy, and love.

A clean heart create for us, O Lord,
and renew within us your steadfast spirit.

Heal our weary bodies,
our worried minds,
our wayward souls.

Touch our stony hearts
and give us hearts
at one with yours.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Faith in the familiar

"Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown,
and among their own kin, and in their own house."
Mark 6:4

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. We think we know a person, have him or her figured out, and are familiar with his or her background, thought processes, attributes. Nothing—we think—that he or she can do, or say, will surprise us.

Impossible! No person thoroughly knows another—no matter how close they are, how much time they spend with one another, or how long they have known one another. Even the most intimate of companions or spouses have unexamined or developing aspects of themselves. One’s skin contains only one person, and even he or she doesn't fully comprehend who that person is or will become. Only the Creator of all knows all, as recounted in Psalm 139:

O Lord, it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
… Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days
that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

When we human beings think we really know someone (thinking we are God?), we tend to miss or dismiss their potential, to impose superficial limits on our own perspective (and that of others)—and, quite possibly, on the capabilities of the person in question. We observe someone and then shake our heads, cluck our tongues, and say, “He’s always been that way.”

Another opportunity lost!

I once worked with someone who, at the beginning of the shift, would smile, rub his hands, and proclaim, “I’m excited about the possibilities!” It was an inside joke in a difficult work environment, but he also really meant it. His was a voice of optimism in what could be an otherwise negative atmosphere. His proclamation gave me hope—and no small measure of amusement.

Such an attitude opens doors, presents fresh opportunities, and brings to light new perspectives. At its core, this is faith, pure and simple.

Applying this to our relationship with a person we may think we know all too well, we should ask ourselves: Can I allow myself to be excited about the possibilities; to be open to a new encounter with the same old, same old; to see and hear the presence of Christ within another person despite (or because of) all that I think I know about that person?

In the gospels, Jesus tells us that we are to find him in one another (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). So, in this light, we also should ask ourselves: Am I able to have faith in Christ’s presence in the familiar, in what and whom I know (or think I know)?

Even Jesus was taken for granted by those who knew him, as illustrated in Mark’s Gospel (6:1-6). Familiarity—even with Jesus—bred contempt. Jesus attempts to proclaim the Good News in his native place, but is met with scorn by those who have known him for quite some time: “Where did this man get all this? … Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” In other words: “Who does he think he is? We know him, where he came from. He’s got some nerve trying to tell us what’s what!”

And so Jesus laments, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Those who were (arguably) most familiar with Jesus exhibited a remarkable lack of faith. Because of this, we are told that Jesus “could do no deed of power there … He was amazed at their unbelief.”

Familiarity is often an obstacle to faith—for all of us. And without faith, we will not experience God’s presence and mighty works. We do well to regularly ask ourselves: Do I too easily dismiss the familiar (whether it’s a person, thing, or circumstance? Or do I look in faith for the possibilities?

As flawed human beings, we tend to place a disproportionate amount of belief in strength, outward beauty, and wealth. When someone seemingly without such qualities—even Jesus—presents us with a prophetic challenge to look with an open heart at what and whom is all too familiar, it is easy to overlook, dismiss, or scorn. We often forget that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that such power is the only remedy for the original sin of human pride. In this way—embracing weakness—God became man, was born of a virgin, was quietly raised in humble circumstances, performed mighty deeds and taught great truths within the ordinariness of human living, was betrayed and crucified as a common criminal…and then was resurrected.

Jesus’ words call each of us to look with the eyes of faith at everything and everyone around us, to see the presence of Christ, to detect brand-new possibilities within the familiar, and to acknowledge the power inherent in the “weakness” of another. What can this familiar person, this thing, this circumstance, teach me today? We are called to hear the prophetic witness of the Good News from the most unlikely of sources, and to acknowledge that as much as we know, we really don’t know… Except, that is, through faith in the Person of Christ, who is all in all (cf. Ephesians 1:23). When we allow him to enter our hearts, we can then ask, as did the inhabitants of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Who is this? (Matthew 21:10). Then, the knowledge of who Jesus is will truly reveal us in relation to God and one another.

Through faith, the power of God’s Word—Jesus Christ—is made perfect in what is weak and familiar.

--Adapted from Grace in the Wilderness
by Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
© 2013, Abbey Press Publications

Saturday, January 24, 2015

From the heart

“Engrave and inscribe on your heart this holy and sacred motto, ‘Live Jesus!’ I am certain that your life, which comes from the heart just as the almond tree comes from its seed, will thereafter produce all its actions—which are its fruits—inscribed and engraved with this sacred word of salvation. As our beloved Jesus lives in your heart, so too he will live in all your conduct… With St. Paul you can say, ‘It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me’ [Galations 2:20].”
-- St. Francis de Sales
Introduction to the Devout Life, III:23

NOTE: In honor of St. Francis de Sales, whose memorial we observe today, Crisis magazine recently published a nice article on the value of returning to the saint's writings for holy but practical wisdom in this day and age. Read it by clicking here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Onward and upward

Congratulations to our five new novices who received their scapulars (with hoods) and coronas (or tonsures) today. Officially invested as members of the Saint Meinrad Archabbey monastic community were Novice Timothy Herrmann, O.S.B., Novice Jinu Thomas, O.S.B., Novice Peter Szidik, O.S.B., Novice Jonathan Blaize, O.S.B., and Novice Thomas Fish, O.S.B. They joined us as candidates in October. Learn more about them by clicking here.

This is the biggest incoming class of novices we've had here in almost 20 years. In the novitiate/juniorate, they join four juniors in temporary vows and two other novices who were invested in August.

In all cases, may God bless and guide their discernment with peace. Pray for the Lord to send more laborers for the harvest!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Focus on Faith

NOTE: Following is the introduction to my new book, Why Do I Worry?, recently published by Abbey Press Publications. The book is part of a new series called "Focus on Faith," and other titles released include Letting Go of Envy, Moving Beyond Doubt, and Growing in PatienceEach 84-page, full-color book in the series focuses on a different aspect of our Christian faith, providing an insightful, inspiring, and attractive presentation of the topic at hand. Each book is designed to be a prayerful guide to empowering one’s faith—putting it to work in day-to-day circumstances, and is filled with short meditations, colorful photographs and illustrations, inspirational quotes, and reflection questions.To get a closer look, visit one of the links above, or visit Abbey Press' Path of Life Publications.

As real as our worries seem, we know, deep down, that worrying is pointless.  It solves nothing, and often leads to potentially more serious problems—like sleeplessness, irritability, lack of concentration, arguments, substance abuse, etc. A recent British study found that the average Briton spends one hour and 46 minutes each day worrying about such things as being out of shape, aging, and finances—amounting to five years and two months of solid worrying over the course of the average lifetime! What’s more, high percentages of those studied said their worrying (not what they were worried about) directly affected their health, job performance, and relationships.
Gerontologist Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D, a professor of human development at Cornell University who has researched and written extensively on aging issues, asked hundreds of senior citizens what they most regretted about their lives. He was surprised by the recurrent answer: “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.” He concludes: “Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness.”
Hopefully, this book will help you do that from the perspective of our Christian faith. Let us follow Jesus, the Light of the world (cf. John 8:12; 9:5), who says to us all: “Do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:25; Luke 12:22). “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1).
Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B.
Why Do I Worry?
©2014 Abbey Press Publications

Sunday, January 4, 2015

An interesting question

Here is something to ponder on this Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, and as we prepare during these first days of 2015 to enter (next week) into Ordinary Time.

In the Old Testament, the very first question God asks fallen humanity is this: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

In the New Testament, the very first question is asked by humanity in search of salvation, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading: “Where is the newborn king?” (Matthew 2:2).

Isn’t that interesting? In essence, those two questions highlight the message of the whole of Scripture. God seeks out fallen humanity, desiring us to return to him—the theme of the entire Old Testament. Meanwhile, fallen humanity, in genuine search of salvation, seeks out our Creator. God and humanity (whether we all know it or not), both desire reconciliation and communion with one another, as it was in the beginning.

The solution to this question, this common desire, is provided by God himself, and is revealed in the object of the Magi’s search: “Where is the newborn king?” Christ is the answer, the fulfillment of our desire—the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). In Christ we find reconciliation and the promise of communion, as it was in the beginning. In Christ, we find our origin, our identity, and our purpose. Like the Magi following the light of the star, we find direction and meaning amid darkness and difficulty when we fix our gaze on the newborn king, Emmanuel, who comes not to rule but to give light and life. He is our peace. This is the message of the entire New Testament.

When we sincerely look for Christ, we discover our true selves made in God’s image, and allow our Creator to see us naked and unashamed, as the light of Christ is magnified in us. “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-5).

These same questions echo throughout time, calling out to each one of us. Where are you? Why do you hide? Come out, and follow the Light to eternal life. Seek and you will find. Where is the newborn king?

Think about it.