Nada, Nada, Nada

Eminent 20th-century theologian, Jesuit priest Karl Rahner speculated near the end of his life, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” Changes and events since his death in 1984 suggest Rahner’s well considered opinion was both prescient and prophetic.

Thus, coming upon a Wallace Stevens poem during a three-session meditation offering at our church delighted me, and simply knocked my socks off! So, for all would-be mystics and fellow contemplative-seekers…

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Frames the profound double entendres surely intended by that great 16th-century Spanish mystic, St Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.

___________

Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1954 by Wallace Stevens and renewed 1982 by Holly Stevens. Source: Poetry magazine (1921).

Alone in Good Company

Simply profound and profoundly simple…

Long ago the Roman stoic philosopher Cato said that “he was never so busy as when he did nothing, and never less solitary than when he was alone.”
_________________
Attributed to Cato by Cicero, De Republica 1.7, trans. Francis Barham. My source is: Monastic Practices,Revised Edition, Charles Cummings, OCSO. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, 2015, p. 49.

A Much Needed Second Look

This should have been yesterday’s post. But I had nothing to say about the topic. It all seemed so “yesterday”, so passé. In fact, I have some negativity to overcome.

As a kid, the Rosary was a big deal. It was prayed in church before Mass. An expensive set of prayer beads were a typical gift for First Communion to replace the cheap plastic rosary we fingered before we even knew the Hail Mary.

We’d pray the Rosary at the beginning of every family road trip — we knew we better have our beads readily at hand. While other kids ran outside to play after dinner we knew we had to pray the Rosary first — not just during Lent, throughout theyear! My Dad prayed the full 15-decade Rosary everyday well into his 80s.

Life moves on. Religious culture changes. Schedules impinge on time. We outgrow childhood practices. I had plenty of negative baggage to dump regarding the seeming dreary repetitious routine that impinged on my youthful spontaneity.  I quickly discarded the practice for what I thought would foster a more mature “contemporary” spirituality.

Yesterday, my solid Catholic upbringing reminded me that October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary (just like I remembered it was my sister’s 54th wedding anniversary).  But I had nothing to say. It seemed like a kindly artifact of yesteryear. Harmless enough. A bit quint. But, irrelevant.

Then a couple of things happened. A friend shared her delight with a prayer service she had attended the evening before at a local Catholic high school. The service was built around The Rosary with St. James, an innovative way of praying that combines the repetitive and contemplative aspects of the traditional ritual with the message that Christ’s disciple James preached—the message that “faith without works is dead.”

The rhythm, the structure of the five decades, and other aspects of the more traditional format are the same. This rosary uses contemporary composer and liturgist David Hass’s Mysteries of Discipleship:

  • First Mystery: To Serve the Poor
  • Second Mystery: To Serve Those Who Experience Discrimination and Hatred
  • Third Mystery: To Serve the Cause of Peace
  • Fourth Mystery: To Serve the Young and the Fearful
  • Fifth Mystery: To Serve the Suffering and the Dying

Interspersed throughout are musical responses along with inspired passages from the “cloud of witnesses,” including Óscar Romero, Peter Maurin, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Paul II, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, St. John XXIII, St. John Baptist de la Salle, Robert F. Kennedy, St. Teresa of Ávila, Adrienne Rich, Helen Keller, and Henri Nouwen.

Then, as if God were intent on putting an exclamation point on the enduring relevance of this ancient prayer form, I simply happened upon a blog post by an Anglican who extolled the Rosary’s spiritual benefits. This Protestant recommends it as a graced entrée for prayerfully inhabiting the mysteries of the Creed.

Yes, the Rosary is Marian in character.  This is because she is among all Christians the model disciple. Yet, at its heart the Rosary — the Mysteries on which we meditate — are thoroughly Christo-centic.

The Anglican bblogger confesses that as he prays the Hail Mary over each plain wooden bead, he is brought again and again into the mystery of the Incarnation – in joy, light, sorrow, glory.  God the Word fully assuming our humanity, that our humanity may fully share in the life of God.

I may be a day late with this reflection.  Nevertheless, it is time to take another look at this discarded, even disvalued, prayer.  Accordingly, I am brought back to profound gratitude for the conscientious efforts my parents made to pass on the faith they treasured, a conformity to Christ they personified.

I enthusiastically introduce you to The Rosary with St. James [here] and the perspectives of the Anglican blogger [here].

True But Not Factual

Visiting the iconic Cologne Cathedral is fraught with danger. The imposing structure begun in 1248 remains under constant repair. Yet, the threat is not physical. The danger I felt last week was to my sophisticated 21st century post-modern Christian faith (sarcasm intended!)

The grand edifice was begun to house the physical remains of the Three Magi who presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Yes, indeed! Their bones had resided in Milan until 1164 when they were brought to Cologne where they remain in a gold, gem-encrusted reliquary which rests atop the main altar.

By the way, if you care to see the actual manger in which Joseph and Mary laid their infant child it has long been housed in the Chapel of the Nativity at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.

I’ve been told that the very foreskin of Jesus was devoutly preserved at his circumcision and can still be venerated somewhere in Europe — I don’t have the time or inclination to verify this claim or its location! Superstition perverts the Gospel. Magic poisons authentic faith. Nevertheless, they abound aplenty!

Pity the one who suggests a story in Scripture can be true but not factual — that the Bible is a proclamation of dynamic covenantal faith, not a presentation of historical facts; that it is a testament to Love, not a treatise of laws. Sadly, this is heresy for many well intentioned folks, some of whom even hold positions of leadership in our faith communities.

Imagine my amazement last week when my belief in the Christian story and commitment to my faith was actually deepened by visiting the Cologne Cathedral. I was awestruck by the majesty of the reliquary and beauty of the edifice.  I found myself moved to venerate what I beheld.

No, I most assuredly do not believe the bones inside the bejeweled gold box are the very remains of the Three Kings. But I most definitely believe in the authenticity of faith expressed by builders of and pilgrims to the Cathedral over the last 1000 years!

This assurance came from the way guides and materials spoke about the centrality of Christ. Yes, the reliquary commands a place of prominence. The Three Kings’ search for the Christ Child — lifelong, through joy and sorrow, danger and discovery — is presented as the universal human pilgrimage.

As did the Magi, we all bring different gifts. But whomever we are and whatever we bring, all is to be placed at the service of the King of Kings. The Cologne Cathedral looms as a physical destination. But what we encounter is encouragement to forego the easy, false paths as did these three exemplars of persistent, searching faith. This monumental church was constructed to assure us of this truth — we too will ultimately come face-to-face with the One we seek.

I walked into the Cologne Cathedral skeptical and dismissive of medieval piety and sentimentality. Days later, comfortably settled at home in Minnesota, my faith remains strengthened, encouraged, grounded by what I witnessed.

Is the story enshrined on the banks of the Rhine factual? Not in the least! Is it true? Yes, I stake my life on it!

Tomorrow is NOW

Today’s the day! Today is the day set aside for special prayer, awareness and action on behalf of creation. The Orthodox Church has been commemorating this day since 1989. The rest of us Christians are taking a little longer to wake up to our need for practical conversion and spiritual transformation in the way we relate to God’s good creation. Better late than never!

Yesterday’s post suggested a few ways to make our commemoration of the day less “churchy” and more “grounded.” It was based in the conviction that we don’t need more prayer; we need more action. We don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer (more about that later).

Here is another simple exercise… I just completed it myself. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home points to numerous ways world organizations, nations and communities can move forward and the way individuals — believers and people of good will — might see, think, feel and act.

Here is the fruit of my personal “examination of conscience.” In other words, where I felt a special need or where I felt I could immediately adapt my behavior. Again, they are what I am attending to today — you will certainly come up with a different assortment. The references in parentheses indicate paragraphs in the encyclical where more is said about this suggestion:

— Reduce, reuse, recycle. Preserve resources, use them more efficiently, moderate consumption and limit use of non-renewable resources. (22, 192)

— Stop blaming problems on population growth. The real threat is excessive consumerism and waste. (50)

— For genuine change, put the common good first. (54)

— Be consistent. Pro-life, environmental and social justice movements are all connected. (91, 120)

— Make public transportation a priority and a more pleasant experience. (153)

— Plant a tree. Take mass transit. Car pool. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Chilly? Wear a sweater. Little things add up. (211)

More than anything, here’s my ultimate favorite. It’s a practice we had at home as kids. What a transformational consequence of prayer it would be if we paused to thank the Creator for our food, for the earth that provided it and for the laborers who brought it to our table.

— Say grace before meals. (227)

In all honesty, here’s the one that presents the biggest immediate challenge at our house. We are much too tied to our iPhones, iPads and “mindless television”:

— End the tyranny of the screen, information overload and distractions. Watch out for media-induced melancholy and isolation. Cultivate real relationships with others. (47)

Above I claimed that we don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer. I promised more about that later. Well, here goes! This is the suggestion (admonition?) that calls for my deepest personal conversion:

— Get down from the ivory tower and stop the rhetoric. Get to know the poor and suffering; it will wake up a numbed conscience and inspire real action. (49)

We will all mark this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in ways that are meaningful and practical for each of us. If you’d care to reflect on the forty or so suggestions that come from Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, you can access the list [here].

Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Who doesn’t like the musical, Annie? It’s theme song, Tomorrow is one of those melodies engrained somewhere in the recesses of our minds that surfaces just when we seem to need encouragement the most!

Well tomorrow — Tuesday, September 1 — really is a special day. When Pope Francis released his prophetic encyclical on ecology and the environment – Laudato si – back on June 18th, a leading Orthodox bishop who had been asked to help present the document, said: “I should like to mention that the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided as early as 1989 to devote the 1st of September of each year to praying for the environment.”

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon then made a request: “Might this not become a date for such prayer for all Christians? This would mark a step towards further closeness among them.” So what’s the Pope to do? Of course, he followed suit by endorsing what the Orthodox Church has been doing for 25 years!

Most of the recommendations I’ve seen for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation strike me as disembodied, cerebral, too “vertical” — focusing on “saying” prayers or going to church. Seriously, isn’t that just the sort of heavenly-minded spirituality that has got us into the bifurcated mess we find ourselves in?

So here are a few more creation-centered ways of marking a day that is to refocus our attention on the Earth and how all life is intertwined:

  • Sing “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the sun’ll come out tomorrow” along with Annie. Be child-like again — the way you were playing outside in nature when you were a kid! Here is a YouTube [link]. Consider: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Mark 10:15
  • Sit aside running water (we have a creek 3 blocks away). Listen to the gurgle. Wonder at the leaf floating atop the passing water. Imagine the stream’s source, it’s destination. What’s all this got to do with your Baptism (or ceremonial washing common to all world religions)?
  • Walk around your block — actually any place will do. This time get out of your head and dismiss every thought about what you have to do next. Just consider what you see. Pay attention. Attend to nature’s persistent poking forth. Marvel at the minuscule. Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air — just consider them, resist making this about you and your worries. Simply consider what you see — as they are, for what they are!
  • Go get yourself a Fall plant from the Garden Store. Fantastic purple-blue asters are coming into our markets right now. Reverently transform your yard with autumn splendor. As you dig the hole and carefully pat down the earth around your favorite Fall selection, remember that human, humus and humility all share the same root-word.
  • Spend some time — whatever you have — getting the following poem into your bones. It is surely as relevant today as when Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Finally, just be grateful. Say, “WOW… Thanks!”  If tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation gets more us us doing that it will have been a rousing success.

No Longer Any Need of Comment

Coincidentally, two things arose today pointing me in the same direction. When things like this converge I’ve learned to pay attention. I don’t have it figured out — at least cognitively. What I have is an intuitive sense that simply suggests wisdom resides somewhere in it all. Both came from Trappist monks — can this be mere coincidence? Does this not suggest more than happenstance.

From In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf:

The monk has received a certain experience of God and a taste of God that go far beyond the formulas that try to circumvent them. He also possesses, through prayer, a sense of the universal communion in Christ that exceeds the visible borders of the Churches such as they have become fixed after the wounds of the great schisms. He feels in a confused way that he must live within a certain ill-defined ecclesiological space, at a point where the partitions erected by the separation have not prevailed and where already those walls are yielding which, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev said one day, certainly do not rise all the way to heaven.

Again, I do not have any of this figured out. Something tells me I don’t need to, nor should I try.

The second thing to arise was a poem by Thomas Merton. Again, I am not prepared to offer commentary. Simply the poem:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

There is nothing more I care to say. I simply offer these words to you, trusting Wisdom will speak whatever needs to be said to your heart.
________________
The quote by Andre Louf is from p. 128 of In the School of Contemplation, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2015.

The poem by Thomas Merton was brought to my attention by Richard Rohr’s Meditation: First and Second Halves of Life, Part I for August 20, 2015 offered by The Center for Action and Contemplation.