Preparing for Mass

I am reading a wonderful little book titled, I Am Food: The Mass in Planetary Perspective, written by the late Roger Corless. I became acquainted with Corless’ work in the course of writing the book on which I am currently working, which adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians. Corless viewed himself as a dual practitioner of Buddhism and Catholicism, and this book, which provides a spiritual commentary on the Mass shows how his Buddhist experience has influenced his undersratnding of the central Christian celebration.

Before I was a third of the way through the book, I already had a list of things I wanted to go back to, such as Corless’ discussion of the difference between pilgrimage and journey, or the problem created by an overemphasis on either God’s transcendence or God’s immmanence and the need for both, or the meaning of myth.

What I thought about last night, however, was a quite simple point, but one we don’t tend to pay much attention to – the need to prepare ourselves for Mass.

At most Masses in my parish, large numbers of people rush in at the last minute, barely making it to their seats before the priest has reached the altar, let alone being in their seats before the entrance processional begins. This is not unique to my current parish; the same was true in the parish to which we belonged in New York, before moving here to Minneapolis.

After talking about remembering, as we enter church, that we are entring a holy place and mentioning the custom of reverencing the altar, Corless writes

It is appropriate to remain kneeling for some time before Mass begins, in order to maintain the awareness of Servant status. Private prayer at this time should be concerned with what Buddhists call Correcting Motivation. Ask yourself, “Why am I here? Fear of punishment if I don’t show? Custom? Hopes of meeting that certain man or woman and making a date? Desire to escape the world and go to heaven?” All these are trivial reasons. The only reason for going to Mass is to worship God in such a way that it results in better service of other creatures. When your motivation has come around to this, you are ready to begin Mass.

However we frame the question to ourselves, it seems to me valuable to take some time before Mass begins disposing ourselves to be open to the mystery in which we are about to partake. At the end of Mass, we will be sent forth to love and serve the God and one another. We will be better able to handle that charge if we have opened ourselves to God’s grace as fully as we are able. And it seems to me that allowing ourselves a few unrushed minutes before the beginning of Mass is a valuable aid in that process.

Self-Gift

I just watched a “last lecture” delivered by Fr. Michael Himes, whose work I always benefit from. This lecture at Bostton College was the first in an anticipated series named for the talk given by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch in September 2007, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The idea of the “last lecture” is that the speaker shares his or her wisdom about the most important things in life, as though this were the last chance one had to convey that which it is absolutely necessary to convey.

What Himes spoke about what his understanding of Christ’s statement in the Gospels that if one holds onto one’s life one loses it but if one gives it away, it becomes everlasting life.

Himes observed that for a long time he mistakenly understood Jesus’ words as a commandment, as saying this is what we ought to do – give up our live to save it. However, over time he came to understand that is it not a command, but a description; not an ought, but a statment of how things are: if we hold onto our live we will lose it; if we give it away, it won’t run out. What that means, he says, is that being and giving oneself are the same thing, which is precisely what John is saying in saying that God is love: that the foundation of existence is self-gift.

Love, in this context is not an emotion, but an activity – the act of giving oneself to another. To really love means to give oneself over to. We can’t, he observes really get to know or understand anyone or anything without giving ourself to it. Giving our time, our intelligence, our energy – really giving ourself to it.

I’ll want to continue mulling over what Himes says in this lecture, but his words resonate. If God is love and we are make in God’s image, than we are made for self-gift. It is not about commands and oughts, but about being who we are. We cannot be fully human, we cannot exist as we were made to exist, in God’s image, without giving ourselves over.

You can watch the lecture in its entirety here.

Practice in Small Things

I just had a chance to read the sermon delivered this past Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis by the Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde. (I receive her wonderful sermons by e-mail each week.).

She began her sermon with several stories as a way of trying to explore what Jesus meant by asking us to be perfect as God is perfect. The one that resonated most with me was the opening paragraph of Jane Hamilton’s novel, A Map of the World. The book begins

I used to think that if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found that it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

Rev. Budde’s point in using this illustration was that “if we are ever to love as God loves, it will take daily practice in small things.” That is, we don’t just wake up and say, “Today I think I’ll love like God,” we don’t have the capacity to will ourselves to turn the other cheek in every situation, always walk the extra mile, etc. Instead, she observed, “Love in great ways in only accomplished through sustained disciplines of simple kindness. Similarly, prejudice and mean-spiritedness don’t come over us all at once. Our falls from grace typically happen, as Jane Hamilton describes, gradually, without our awareness.”

That is a very helpful observation. Loving like God seems like such an enormous task. But surely we can all practice love in small things; that is not too daunting a task. So think about what you might do today.

Spiritual Seekers

Last evening I spoke at a program at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. The program was titled Spiritual Seekers: 3 Women’s Religoius Journeys. Three of us shared our stories. One woman was raised as a Baptist and is now a practicing Muslim. Another was raised Reformed Jewish and is now an ordained Zen Buddhist priest working as a interfaith chaplain. I, as many readers already know spent many years as a Tibetan Buddhist before returning to Christianity. The goal was to share something of each of our spiritual autobiography with students who are seeking their own spiritual path.

What was striking, although perhaps not all that surprising, were the common themes that ran through our stories, despite the differences. The understanding of conversion as process and the faith journey as one that lasts a lifetime. The need for quiet contemplative time. The value of experiential knowledge as well as intellectual learning. The importance of mindfulness.

The other thing that came up is something I’ve experienced and spoken about many times – the fact that when one delves deeply into faiths other than ones own, one discovers important points of convergence. Not identity – it would be foolish to pretend there are not differences among religions. But all three of us experienced that things that sound different are often quite similar once one dives deeply beneath the surface.

Following our talks, the questions were provacative and the discussion lively. All in all, an enjoyable as well as spirituallyl nourishing evening.

Be the First to Give Way in a Squabble

I don’t always read the Meditation of the Day contained in Magnificat, but last night I happened to notice yesterday’s meditation, which came form the Jerusalem Community Rule of Life. (As described on their website, the Jerusalem Community consistes of “two religious institutes of brothers and sisters whose vocation it is to provide an oasis of prayer, silence and peace in the ‘desert’ of modern cities.”)

What drew my attention in the excerpt from the rule of life was this:

You should be intelligent and holy enough to be the first to give way in a quarrel; and never let squabbles over trifles harm your deep union with your brothers. You may be in the right but your duty is not to let the sun go down on your anger.

When I read those lines, what came immediately came to mind was a similar expression by Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist philosopher. In his Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, which I first read some years ago, Shantideva writes: “When, out of envy, others mistreat me with abuse, insults or the like, I shall accept defeat and offer the victory to others.”

The wisdom of the advice seems sound to me. What matters most, especially in community, is restoring harmony, allowing love to flow. What matters is to not allowing “squabbles over trifles harm [our] deep union” with each other.

Sound as it is, the advice is not all that easy to follow. I don’t find it particularly difficult to acknowledge my mistakes or to apologize when I believe I’ve acted badly. But “giving way” when I think I’m in the right, “offer[ing] the victory” to one I feel has mistreated me – that’s a challenge.

And so I pray for the grace to give way more easily…to be willing to accept the defeat and offer victory to others, even when I feel I am in the right.

Whoever is Not Against Us is For Us

There is often a strand of exclusivity among people of faith, a tendency to separate themselves from those who they identify as not sufficiently being a member of the chosen group. It may be because the person doesn’t go to the right church. Or it could be because the person holds different views on issue the person judging views to be important. Or that the person speaks or acts in a way the person making the judgment believes people of faith should speak or act.

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus reacts strongly against such an attitude. John complains to Jesus that the disciples saw someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name. John explains that the disciples tried to stop the person because “he does not follow us.” Jesus admonishes him for trying to prevent the person; if the person is performing “a mighty deed in [his] name,” the person can not “at the same time speak ill of [him].” Thus, says Jesus, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus cuts through our tendency toward exclusivity with a simple test. Are people doing good deeds in his name? If they are, it doesn’t matter whether they “follow” the disciples.

We would do well to apply the same sort of test in our evaluation of others. Are they being as Christ in the world? Are they loving God and loving one another? Are they feeing the poor, ministering to the sick, visiting those imprisoned? Are they being salt and light?

Today’s Gospel suggests that it is enough for Jesus if the answers to such questions is yes. And that means it ought to be good enough for us.

What We Eat

While I was a Buddhist, I spent several years as a vegetarian. Although the Tibetan Buddhists with whom I lived in Nepal and India were not vegetarian, the Dalia Lama encouraged people to avoid meat. And when I spent time in a Therevadan retreat house in Thailand, no meat was served. As time went on after I moved back to the United States, I started to again eat meat.

I have become increasingly uncomfortable with doing so. A combination of the cruelty of treatment of animals by industrial meat producers (and their employees) and concerns about sustainability led me some time ago to conclude that the Dalai Lama was correct and that the better view is that eating meat is an unethical thing to do.

Within the last couple of months I squarely faced the realization that, while I commit my share of sins and wrongdoings, there is no act that I consciously engage in knowing it to be wrong – other than this one. Thus, I find myself moving back toward vegetarianism. (“Moving back” because there is still some previously purchased meat in my freezer and consuming it over time seems a better choice than discarding food in a world where people are starving.)

This is part of larger effort my family and I are making to make better food purchasing choices – more organic, less industrial produced foods, basically eating a more sustainable diet. (Immediately after watching Food, Inc., I bought a summer share in a local CSA farm.)

This is an effort that has a cost. Organic vegetables are more expensive than nonorganic. Buying things in season means not eating some things just because one feels like them. And, I confess, that I know there will be times when I feel a strong desire for a very rare hamburger.

But I think we are reaching a point where our industrial food practices are causing serious harm – to our bodies, to the environment and to our souls. And we may have reached the point that all of us have to think about making some choices that limit our ability to have everything we want in order that everyone will have enough.

That may not, for everyone, mean giving up meat completely. But I do think we all have to think hard about our consumption habits – and what they mean for others and for our futures.

Introducing the Spiritual Exercises

This weekend I was part of a UST Campus Ministry team presenting an overnight retreat to undergraduates designed to introduce them to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ingatius. For most of the students, this was their first encounter with Ignatius and the Exercises.

I was very pleased with their response. For many it was challenging and for some a real struggle. But all of them experienced a deepending of their relationship with God and a desire to continue to deepen that relationship and grow in discipleship. For me, it was a very energizing experience and I was heartened to see the response of 35 college students to a method of prayer that is so close to my heart.

I gave three of the talks through the weekend, including the first talk, which did three things. First, it gave an introduction to the Spiritual Excercises and the ways of encountering them. Second, I spent time talking about the disposition phase of the exercises, during which one focuses on getting in touch with a felt sense of God’s enormous love for them. Finally, I talked about Week 1 of the Exericises, and the subject of sin.

You can find a podcast of that talk (which runs for 37:24) here. I’ve also posted podcasts of the other two talks I gave during the retreat – one on Week 3 of the exericises and one on Week 4 and the Contemplatio. (They are here and here.)

Covenant of the Eucharist

Last evening, the UST Director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Erich Rutten, joined us at the Gainey Center to celebrate Mass for the undergraduate students attending the Ignatian Retreat I am giving with several members of the Campus Ministry staff. As always, Fr. Erich’s homily offered much fruit for reflection.

Fr. Erich observed that after enjoying a dinner at the home of friends, we come home and write a short thank you note to our host. However, when we partake of the banquet presided over by Jesus, we don’t get off quite that easily. Partaking in the Eucharistic banquest means entry into a covenantal relationship that demands a much more radical response than a simple thank you note. Our Mass readings for today give flesh to the response that is asked (demanded) of we who participate in the Eucharist.

In the first reading from Leviticus, God instructs the people through Moses, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” In the Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples, “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What does it mean for us to be holy as God is holy? to be perfect as God is perfect? Jesus elucidates in the Gospel, an elucidation that, as Fr. Erith pointed out, is seconded in today’s psalm: The Lord is kind and merciful.

Being holy as God is holy, perfect as God is perfect, means being kind and merciful. Being kind and merciful, as Jesus explains, means not to return an eye for an eye, but to turn the other cheek. Not to fight over our tunic, but to give over our coat as well. Not to be pressed into one mile, but to voluntarily goe two. Not to hate our enemy, but to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.

Writing a thank you note to someone who has given us a fine feast is easy. A few words written over a few minutes and we are done. But what we commit ourselves to in gratitude and love for the Eucharistic feast we have been given is much more demanding. It demands a complete conversion, but one we undertake with the help of our God.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Joy of Christ

I get concerned sometimes that we are under the mistaken impression that discipleship is always about difficulty and suffering.

We speak of the cost of discipleship (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase) or we hear Jesus say things like, “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Very weighty phrases.

It is true that there is a cost of discipleship – and that cost can at times be high. At times, there will be difficult and sometimes painful consequences that flow from following Christ, from putting Christ first in our lives. And some of the crosses we are asked to bear are heavy, indeed.

But if that is all we focus on – if that is all we see when we look at Jesus – our faith, and therefore our lives, become simply an unpleasant task that has to be undertaken for the sake of some larger goal. And when that is all we see, we miss the sheer joy of spending time with Jesus. Of walking with him, being with him, simply enjoying his company.

The disciples went out on difficult missions (and some of them never came back). But they also ate meals with Jesus, went to wedding feasts with him, and probably, at times, just clowned around with him.

It would do us well to do some of the same.