The Song of Songs

Today’s first Mass reading is taken from the Song of Songs, although a reading from the Book of Zephaniah may be used as an alternate first reading. I wonder if the reason for including the alternate reading is that so many Catholics (and other Christians) aren’t all that comfortable with the Song of Songs and don’t quite know what to do with it.

There is a tendency at times to talk about God’s love in very passionless and sterile (read: safe) terms. And there is nothing sterile about the Song of Songs. In today’s reading, we hear

Hark! My lover – here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag…My lover speaks; he says to me, “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!…O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, Let me see you, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.”

That is language that has some people squirming. It is almost erotic, full of passion, running counter to the tendency of many to think of God’s love like the kiss on the cheek one gets from an elderly uncle.

But those who have had deep experiences of God understand this language. When I read today’s reading, I was reminded of Teresa of Avila’s description of her mystical experience that is given image in the statute titled The Ecstasy of S. Teresa di Avila. Terea describes an angel appearing to her in bodily form who seemed to be on fire. She writes

In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God.

The passionless chaste love of the elderly uncle does not set our soul afire. It is the love Teresa experienced, the love illumed in the Song of Songs that leaves one “utterly consumed by the great love of God” and that makes the soul “content with [nothing] but God.” That is the love we ought to pray to experience.

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Joseph: A Man of Few (Read: No) Words

Yesterday’s Gospel was St. Matthew’s account of what is sometimes referred to as the Annunciation of Joseph – the appearance to Joseph of an “angel fo the Lord,” telling him that it was through the Holy Spirit that Mary had become pregnant and that, therefore, he should not be afraid to take Mary into his home. At Mass last night, the celebrant said something I must have realized before, but had not really spent any time thinking about – that Joseph never speaks in the Gospels.

Joseph is that only “major player” in the Gospel I can think of that has no speaking parts. Not a word comes out of his mouth in any of the four Gospels. Nonetheless, we are able to form a clear picture of this “righteous man” who had such enormous faith in God. With Joseph, it is not a case of actions speaking louder than words. Rather, his actions speak volumes in the complete absence of words.

When he learns Mary is pregnant, he determines not to have her stoned to death, as was his right, but to quietly divorce her.

When the angel delivers the message of yesterday’s Gospel, Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”

When another angel told him to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod, he departed for a strange place, leaving behind all that he knew.

When the angel came and told him to return to the land of Israel, he immediately followed that instruction.

And then he raised Jesus, teaching him all that he knew.

St. Francis is quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary use words.” We have no words of Joseph. But we have actions that speak volumes about the man. A humble man of tremendous faith. He was open to hear God’s word, and when he heard it, he acted upon it.

May our actions speak as loudly.

Emotional Objectivity Plus Active Relationship

One of my Facebook friends posted the other day this quote of Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist who was one of the founders of systemic therapy:

A “differentiated self” (an emotionally, relationally healthy person) is one who can maintain emotional objectivity, while in the midst of an emotional system in turmoil, yet at the same time actively relate to the key people in the system.

I wonder how many of us qualify as emotionally, relationally health persons under that description. In the midst of emotional turmoil around us, it is easy to lose our center, so to speak, and be carried off by the waves around us. Alternatively, the price of maintaining our own equilibrium is to withdraw from those around us.

To not let our minds be disturbed by the insanity we sometimes find ourselves in the midst of but to still be able to minister to those around us – to love and extend compassion, wisdom and blessing to those who are part of the insanity around us (either as causes of the turmoil of innocent bystanders of it) is not easy.

Yet, we see models of exactly that not only so often in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of so many of the saints. Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker houses of New York City. Isaac Jogues and his companions among the Iroquois. Damien of Molokai advocating for the needs of the leper’s in Hawaii.

We might profit from spending some time looking at our own behavior when in the midst of an system in turmoil and ask God for the grace to be able to maintain our internal peace at the same time that we remain present in an active way to those around us.

Not a Reed, But a Firm Rock

One of the great models of Advent is John the Baptist. Although I always think of John primarily as someone who willingly embraced his role to “testify to the light” (but not himself being the light), Francis de Sales highlights something else about John. He writes

You have found in him not a reed, but a firm rock, a man possessed of unshakable stability in the midst of all sorts of changing circumstances….John is the same in adversity as in prosperity, the same in prison amidst persecutions as in the desert amidst applause; as joyous in the winter of trouble as in the springtime of peace; he fulfilled the same role in prison as he did in the desert!

John embodies well what St. Ignatius would call active indifference, what Buddhists might refer to detachment and absence of clinging. By whatever name, de Sales is right that this quality of stability is an important virtue in the spiritual life.

There will always be hardships and sources of turmoil in our lives. Contrary to the old saying, life is not a bowl of cherries; indeed, it sometimes seems to be a pile of pits. The challenge is to not be like those de Sales describes “who are fervent, prompt, and optimistic in prosperity [but] weak, depressed and disheartened in adversity.” To not be so inconstant “that when the weather is fine, nothing can equal [our] job, but when stormy, nothing can equal [our] depression.”

This is one of the importants tasks of our spiritual life – to develop the constancy of John, that we may be “as joyous in the winter of trouble as in the springtime of peace.”

Actively Waiting in Joyful Hope – Advent Retreat in Daily Living – Week 4

This week was the final session of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas. (St. Hubert’s final session will be Monday evening.) As I’ve explained before, in a Retreat in Daily Living, participants commit themselves to a prayer each day and go about their daily lives as usual, coming together weekly for input and sharing.

This week our theme was Actively Waiting in Joyful Hope. Since law school exams are in session, we got moved from our normal room to one not conducive to small group discussion. So we began our session with a full group discussion of the participants’ experience of prayer during the final week. What came out of that discussion was gratitude for the ability to slow down during this busy season, a recognition of the value of ritual in focusing our minds and the sense of Advent as a creative time. I then spoke briefly about the gift we give in response to God’s gift to us of the Incarnation – the “joyful hope” we bring to the world, sharing some thoughts about what it means for us as Christians to gift the world with hope.

You can a podcast of my talk here. (The podcast runs for 18:58.) A copy of this week’s prayer materials is here. I hope some of you will pray along with us durign these remaining days of Advent.

What People See and Hear

As I was thinking last night about yesterday’s Gospel, in which an imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another, I was reminded of a Christopher Hitchens video a friend of mine once brought to my attention. In it Hitchens contrasts Socrates and Christ, saying Socrates never said “you’ve got to believe everything I say because my mother never went to bed with anybody and that proves the truth of what I say.”

While Hitchens has a brilliant mind and is a powerful speaker and writer, I remember being irritated when I first listened to that comment because, of course, Jesus never said any such thing. Never did Jesus say, believe in me because my mother was a virgin or was herself immaculately conceived or several of the other things Hitchens says to ridicule Christianity.

When John asks if Jesus is the “one who is to come,” Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepars are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.” Look at the evidence, says Jesus. What does what you see and hear tell you? Jesus doesn’t demand that people rely on his revelation; he invites them to rely on the evidence.

As I reflected again this morning on the scripture passage in light of Hitchens comments, what struck me was the implications this has for our own behavior. The danger of inviting people to rely on the evidence – to consider what they see and hear – is they might actually do that. We know what people see in the world around them – war, famine, poverty, crime, hatred, prejudice – so many causes of suffering. But do they see something else?

For us the question is: what to people see and hear when they look at us? Do they see the presence of Christ in us? Do we demonstrate to the world the presence of God? Do we give people reason (a better reason than the kind of claims that are so easily mocked) to believe in the reality of Christ?

In these waning days of Advent, we might profitably reflect on how we share the Good News of Christ’s incarnation (and life, death and resurrection) with the world.

Reformation vs. Rebellion

Yesterday I attended Mass at the law school chapel, presided over by the University’s Director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Erich Rutten, whose homily always provides me with something to reflect on. Yesterday was a day that conjoined the memorial of St. John of the Cross, a great reformer of the Carmelite order, with a first Mass reading from the prophet Zephaniah, in which God chastises the people for their rebellious nature.

I smiled as Fr. Erich began his sermon because he immediately made the same link I did the second time I heard the word “rebellious” in the first reading. He asked, how do we distinguish between the reformer and the rebel? The activist and the terrorist?

The first thing that struck me when he put the question that way is that quite often, neither the actor nor the institution that is the object of the action sees the difference between the two, although in differents ways. To the institution being acted upon, rebellion and reform efforts both have a tendency to be perceived as rebellious attacks. (Hence the reality that many reformers and prophets through the ages have been punished severely by the leaders of the institutions they have tried to reform.) The actor tends to perceive himself or herself as a noble reformer, even in those cases where the acts are more accurately characterized as acts of rebellion.

At an objective level the distinction in motivation between the reformer and the rebel, the activist and the terrorist, is easy to articulate. One is motivated by a desire to build up, the other to tear down. One seeks the good, the other seeks chaos. But it strikes me that motivation alone is not sufficient. One can be well-motivated but still be faulty in one’s discernment of actions (or reactions); we’ve all heard the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

From the inside, so to speak, it is important to distinguish between reform and rebellion. The institution needs to have a willingness to hear the cries of those who see where the institution needs to change for the better and to dintinguish between sincere, justifiable and worthwhile calls to reform and misguided efforts to pull the institution off its positive course. And so-called reformers need to be sure their efforts are truly efforts at reform and not acts that will act to the detriment of themselves and the institution. That requires both careful discernment and humility. On both sides.

St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. John of the Cross, called the Doctor of Mystical Theology. John was a 16th Century Spanish monk and one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians (as well as one of Spain’s greatest lyrical poets).

John wanted nothing more than to be a hermit. But then he met Teresa of Avila, who enlisted him in her plans to reform the Carmelites, thus pulling him into a life of public service and controversy.

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” and his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer that prayer. He was repeatedly kidnapped, imprisoned and even tortured. At one point, he was imprisoned for six months deep in the bowels of a Carmelite monastery. It was so cold he developed frostbite and he was given so little food that, in the words of one author, “anyone less accustomed to fasting might have given up in despair.”

At another time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa were pushing. He escaped from that prison, reportedly by picking the lock of his cell, slipping past a guard and climbing out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets.

John lived a life of constant prayer and during his imprisonment he composed poems. Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel, both classics of Western Christian writing, began as a series of prison poems. Subsequent to his release, he wrote long commentaries on these and others of his poems.

In 1591, John became ill from fevers and gangrenous sores on his leg. By December his condition worsened and he asked for last rights on December 11th. Two days later he asked forgiveness for any problems he may have caused. He died as the clock struck midnight (as he had predicted, so he could sing matins in heaven). On his lips as he died were the words of Christ: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

In the darkness as well as in the light, John found God. He is a model of faith in God, especially at those times when God seems absent or far away.

Our Role in Fulfilling the Promise of Advent

We had a Taize prayer service at St. Hubert’s on Thursday evening. As our Taize services alway do, the evening included song, readings, a brief reflection on the readings, petitions and a final prayer and blessing. A growing group of us take different parts in the services from month to month. For this month, I selected the readings and gave the reflection.

My theme was The Promise of Advent – God’s promise that no matter how bleak things seem (and at times our own situation and that of the world around us can seem pretty bleak), God will make things right. God hears the longing and cries of God’s people and answers them.

However, God doesn’t do all the heavy lifting alone, but invites us to participate in his great redemptive scheme. Just as God invited Mary to be an integral part in the Incarnation by bearing Jesus, each of us is invited to do our part to help incarnate God into the world. A key word is “invite.” God never forces our yes, but always leaves us free to choose, as Mary freely gave her consent to her role in God’s plan.

The readings I chose for the evening were Psalm 142:2-8a (expressing the lament and suffering of the people and their longing for God’s rescue), Micah 4:1-7 and Isaiah 11 (beautifully expressing what God’s reign will look like) and Luke 1:26-38 (the Annunciation). For ease of reference, the readings are here. You can find a podcast of my reflection (which runs for 7:50) here.

Are You the One Who is To Come?

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, John the Baptist sends his disiples to Jesus to ask him “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?

You can almost hear the insecurity and wondering in John’s question. John has done everything asked of him by God. He has been true to his mission to testify to the light. He went all over preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people. And when Jesus appeared on the scene, he told his followers in no uncertain terms that Jesus is the one they should follow.

Yet now John is languishing in prison, perhaps knowing that he will die without ever leaving that wretched place. It would be understandable if John were sitting there wondering whether it had all been worth it. Whether he had backed the right horse, so to speak. Whether all he had done had been in vain.

While most of us are not thrown into prison for our preaching of the Gospel, I suspect we all have moments of doubt. Wondering if we are following the right path. Wondering whether our efforts are worth it. Wondering if they will bear fruit.

Jesus’ response was to tell John’s disciples to go and report to him what they have heard and seen – the blind regaining their sight, leapers cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the poor having the good news proclaimed to them. Doubtless there was still a lot of suffering in the land, but in the midst of the suffering, were the signs of Christ’s presence and the signs of who Christ was.

The same signs are there for us. True, we live in a world groaning with loss and suffering. But we also live in a world where, if we look around, we can see signs of God’s presence and we can see signs that our efforts to proclaim the Gospel are bearing fruit. The signs are there; we just need to look for them.