Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Litany Prayer Before Francisco Zurbaran's "Christ Child"

SOME YEARS AGO, IN SEARCHING FOR A CHRISTMAS IMAGE to have printed on a card, I came across this painting of the "Christ Child" by Francisco Zurbaran. In looking at  the image for days, I thought to write a litany prayer to the Child Jesus and shared the idea with Yuri, my artist- friend and colleague. Clearly familiar with Zurbaran's work, Yuri said to me, "You know, Zurbaran has also painted the little Mary." Both images are housed in different Russian museums.

So here's the Litany to the Christ Child I wrote. The other litany before Zurbaran's Childhood of the Virgin will follow on this blog in a couple of days. My hope is that in offering these images and prayers we'll be helped to slow down, to look deeply, to consider and to pray.  We might write our own poems or prayers after some time. They needn't be long. Prayer should be short and heartfelt.

Who is the artist? Francisco Zurbaran  was born in Fuente de Cantos in 1598, in Spain, into a family of merchants. He was trained as a professional painter in Seville in the workshop of Pedro Diaz da Villanueva. Afterwards he returned to his birthplace to paint a large number of religious images for churches and monasteries.

He became the leading artist in Seville, where he settled in 1629, creating paintings for altars and frescoes for monasteries. Frescoes are wall paintings done rather quickly on damp plaster. In 1630-45 Zurbaran distinguished himself as a portrait painter, executing numerous paintings of saints. One source describes his style this way: With massively simple figures and objects, clear, sober colors and deep solemnity of feeling expressed in thickly applied paint, he was an ideal painter for the churches of Spain.

When Murillo arose as the popular Spanish painter, Zurbaran's  fortune fell. In order to support himself, in 1658, he moved to Madrid where he became an art dealer. He was apparently not a very good businessman, as he died there in poverty in 1664.

As the prayer grows out of considering the painting, I might suggest spending some time with the image in silence first.

Savior Child, take me up into your shepherd arms.
Savior Child, you come to our rescue with cross and blessing.
Savior Child, heaven's answer to our desire to be saved.
Savior Child, who answers questions we hardly know to ask.
Savior Child, you love and bless our world as you find it.
Savior Child, with welcoming arms you are receptive to our concerns.
Savior Child, God coming to stand with us on our earth.

Small Jesus, Mary's boy: guileless, joyful and good.
Small Jesus, God's embracing us in our self-destruction.
Small Jesus, smiling at the yet-to-be disclosed secret of our salvation.
Small Jesus, heaven's opening to all.
Small Jesus, though we have used and abused you, you love us.
Small Jesus, visitor in our un-knowing.
Small Jesus, coming on parted clouds to be at home with us.

Infant Jesus, God's creative power in your tiny hand.
Infant Jesus, coming to us from the world of light.
Infant Jesus, no stranger to us in our need and weakness.
Infant Jesus, that we might imagine new possibilities of mind and heart.
Infant Jesus, in our despair and depression - like the renewing sun.
Infant Jesus, whose robe is ample; restore my own lost robe of innocence.
Infant Jesus, loving us as we may become.

Holy Child, God come to us now in visible form.
Holy Child, into whose abyss of mercy, sins are lost.
Holy Child, I can only wonder at your gifts.
Holy Child, in the full communion of your face.
Holy Child, with love greater than our foolishness.
Holy Child, whose knowledge dispels human ignorance.
Holy Child, whose hands teach us compassion.

Child Jesus, dry our bitter tears.
Child Jesus, the story of my life is tangled; guide me.
Child Jesus, life where fear and death once reigned in me.
Child Jesus, God's alluring love so close, I might miss it.
Child Jesus, we chased you away, but you returned.
Child Jesus, who never abandons, but leads us to all that is good.
Child Jesus, born in the pained land of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan.

You came to us as little, Jesus, so we would be quick to love you.
You came to us as little, Jesus, so that we would take delight in you.
You came to us as little, Jesus, so our first experience of you would be God's smile.
You came to us as little, Jesus, so we would know God shares our vulnerability.
You came to us as little, Jesus, so we would value human growth.
You came to us as little, Jesus: gospel of surprise.

Christ Child, your first guests were shepherds.
Christ Child, with the cross, not a sword: free us from patterns of destruction.
Christ Child, heaven befriending us.
Christ Child, God becoming human; may we become human too.
Christ Child, restore joy and hope in us.
Christ Child, no more boy-soldiers.
Christ Child, an end to boy-slavery.

Almighty God and Father of light,
a child is born for us and a son is given to us.
Your eternal Word leaped down from heaven
in the silent watches of the night,
and now your Church is filled with wonder
at the nearness of her God.
Open our hearts to receive his life
and increase our vision with the rising of dawn,
that our lives may be filled with his glory and his peace
who lives and reigns forever and ever.

Collect for the Christmas Mass at Dawn

Zurbaran, Francisco (1598-1664) Christ Child
Photo Credit: Scala / Art Resource, New York

Friday, June 28, 2013

"Blessed Joseph Her Spouse"

RECENTLY POPE FRANCIS ASKED  the priests of the Latin Rite around the world to place Saint Joseph's name in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, after the name of Jesus' Mother, Mary. This news isn't as monumental as the pope's  initiating a probe into the Vatican Bank, but it has significance for the Church, especially if we can see the addition as more than just the pope sharing his devotion.

Mary and Joseph were married. But in the ancient biblical world, once the couple was married and before they lived together as husband and wife, they went apart separately to live with other married people to learn how to be good spouses to each other.

We shouldn't just assume that people know how to be good husbands and wives; mothers and fathers. Indeed, that so many marriages fail so often and so quickly, perhaps suggests that some practical teaching time might be a very good idea. Marriage failure isn't someone else's fault.  It takes a lot of hard work and self-forgetting to make marriages strong and enduring.

In the old ritual book used at weddings, the priest used to  read a long instruction to the young couple before the exchange of vows. The word sacrifice or sacrificial appears six times in those pages. Are most people ready for that?

Anyway, when Mary told Joseph she was pregnant and that he wasn't the father, Joseph was understandably confused and upset. But in a dream the angel told him to take Mary into his home as his wife. Then when the baby was born and Herod was angry at hearing there was a child around who was being called a king, Joseph was again summoned into action by a dream-angel and the little family fled to Egypt. Finally, when the coast was clear, Joseph took his wife and the child to Galilee, yet again directed by an angelic navigator, circumventing murderous trouble in Judea. This action packed story is found in Matthew 1:1 - 2:23.

It is a hard story, full of threats and fears, disrupted sleep, long and miserable travel, tiring obedience, disappointment in plans that didn't work out, twists and turns, enemies lurking, poverty and future unknowns. And in all of this, Joseph is the original action man of the New Testament. He doesn't get into a major fight with Mary,  leaving her and the child abandoned. In fact, he is so plugged in and receptive to God's purposes, only gradually unfolding, that we don't hear him speak at all throughout the story - he just listens and acts.

Isn't this refreshing in a world of incessant talking: commercials and infomercials, sitcoms with canned laughter after each spoken line, politicians who seem to be standing in front of microphones at every turn, radio talk show hosts who bloviate (talk much and say nothing). Even in the life of the Church it's a frequent complaint that the clerics who stand in the pulpit are taking a long time to say very little or that Church life is a series of endless meetings which bear little fruit.

Maybe we have Joseph, newly featured, to help quiet us down - if we will dare it. Saint Benedict begins his rule for monks with the word: Listen! I recently showed a forest waterfall to young Nicholas, who asked to climb to the top, to see where the water went over the cliff. As he took video of the falls from different and interesting angles, we didn't speak, but simply listened.. Then tracing the stream back away from the roar of the falls, he made a video of a mossy grove of ferns and trees where the only sound was that of the rain patting the leaves and the  quiet pools of water along the edges of the stream. At one point I simply put my finger to  my lips, and listening, he filmed the quiet.

But this fresh sense of listening has to invade our home and work lives too. In an article on the troubled state of marriage, a woman asks, "Why can't I find a man who can listen as long as I can talk?" Some men will roll their eyes or make fun of this woman, without even knowing who she is or what she's really asking. They will just assume she talks too much and that to listen to her would be burdensome. Maybe the woman is simply expressing what many women don't ever express: that they feel unheard by the men who say they love them. All throughout the story, it's Joseph the Listener.  Indeed, he listened to angels! What does that mean?

Brother Roger of Taize said that we should never engage in any kind of proposed dialogue until we are able to speak and understand the language of the other. He's not talking about German, Italian, African dialect, French. Roger means we shouldn't engage in dialogue until we understand the other person's sense of history, their conceptual life - where they're coming from. Instead, today so many people appraoch conversation with their minds already made up. Come hell or high water, they are going to get their agenda across.

Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the first project the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches might undertake towards unity would be to write a common history. What a marvelous idea! But were that ever to happen, I'd suggest, that the greatest gift given to the world, would not have been the volumes written, but the modeling of the great, mutual and humble listening that would have been required to produce those volumes in the first place.

Blessed Joseph, Husband of Mary...that we would be changed, and that our world would be changed through listening.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Descent into Hades - Christ Risen!

THE EASTERN CHURCH DOESN'T make images of the moment of Resurrection. The Easter Icon is titled The Descent into Hades: that Christ has gone down into the very deepest place of darkness, fear, sin and loss and there, unwilling to lose anything that belongs to God, retrieves Adam and Eve from their tombs and all those who are waiting for their salvation.

The mountains or caverns to left and right seem to hold Christ who descends to the underworld in a sphere of light. Everything radiates with the energies of the Resurrected Christ. Adam and Eve seem to be the last ones plucked from eternal loss, while Moses and the kings of Israel observe. Christ's movements, striding over the gates of Hades, suggest the Easter Hymn: Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life!

I Corinthians 15: 20-25

Look! Christ the Life descends into Hades,
and there he overwhelms the doors of death.
He searches for Adam and Eve in their tombs
restoring each to life.

Having great compassion upon our race,
Christ the Victor plunders hell.
The friends of God wait patiently
as Christ reclaims everything for God.

In the dark abyss the doors of death
become useless in defending their cause.
Christ the Light descends into darkness:
locks and bolts fail before his advance.

When the Victor pulled Adam and Eve from the tombs,
he had me in mind as well.
Let us marvel at Christ whose power is great,
and whose triumph spares us disillusionment and fear.

The deepest darkness runs away,
as the Easter Christ makes the underworld bright.
Let us rejoice with those who  are found by Christ,
and increase joy where there's weariness and sorrow.

Wax melts before the flame,
as the power of death yields to Christ.
Adam and Eve secured from death's cold grasp;
earth rejoices in a springtime of rebirth.

Death, while a very great power, is only the second:
the Resurrection of Christ is first.
Glorify Christ who has gone to such depths,
for love of us!

The myrrh-bearing women wondered before the empty tomb
as the angel rolled back the great stone.
And as Caesar's guards collapse in fear,
earthly empires are confounded.

When the Lord invaded the shadowy realms
in a sphere of Easter radiance,
he spoke to Eve a word of life,
to the transformation and renewal of our minds.

The Lord is Risen from the dead:
ice melts,
the ground warms and greens.
And we can change!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

TODAY IS THE FEAST OF THE NATIVITY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST. John is the precursor or forerunner of Jesus. Today we might call him an advance man. In school I was taught that John was the pinnacle of the Old Testament, the last of the prophets, the holy man who linked Old and New Testaments.

He's so important that there are still other feasts commemorating aspects of his life: his martyrdom by beheading on August 29. And in the Eastern Church, the Feast of his Conception on September 24 and the Feast of the Discovery of his relics on October 12. Of course, he appears prominently in the account of Jesus' Baptism in early January.

The Church takes life very seriously and so John's Conception and Birth matter and are cause for joy. A woman becomes a mother when she conceives, not when she gives birth. Maternity clothes comes from the Latin word mater, which means mother. I've met women who have had a keen sense of whether it was boy or girl early on in the pregnancy, even before technology confirmed one way or the other. Women have baby showers not fetus showers. At conception there comes into existence something new and unique. Woman-instinct gives us more than a few clues acknowledging this.

John's parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were older, beyond the time it was thought pregnancy could occur. Zechariah is sitting in the bottom right of the icon writing the baby's name, John, ending the dispute which left him speechless. Three happy women-friends are on hand to help, as women so often do when there's need. Is the friend on the right bringing a piece of watermelon to the table? The one nearest Elizabeth might be saying, "Not to worry about a thing; everything will be just fine."

When women gather to form these micro-communities of help, the world is well. I visited a young woman once who was under the care of  home-hospice. When I arrived to offer the prayers for the dying, the woman's friends were busy cleaning, cooking, washing, reminiscing. They all wept and gathered close around her bed in  tender support.

Some days later at the funeral, I greeted the casket at the door of the church. Mourners stood in close circles four and five deep. In the initial prayer there are the words, "On the day of her baptism, our sister put on Christ..." remembering when she was formally dressed in white as a baby. That's the point at which the pallbearers place a white cloth-covering over the casket, symbolic of the baptism gown. But having said this, there was a lull, as if the men missed their cue, no one moved to place the pall.

Then suddenly there was a silent movement all around, and those same four caring women,  from a few days ago came forward, unfolded the pall and simultaneously lifted it open, forming a pocket of air beneath it - as if they were spreading a picnic blanket, fluffing a quilt or a  table cloth for a dining room table.

We'll see women of this kind again at the end of the Jesus story, when they show up at the tomb at dawn  to complete the burial tasks for Jesus, but will wind up running in the two halves of joy and fear, to announce the happy news of Jesus risen. Thank you, ladies!

In this icon John is grown and has gone to the wilderness where he calls us to a life of repentance. Often in icons of John the Baptist he has fully opened angel wings. He is God's messenger, called an earthly-angel and a heavenly-man.

In the hymn for the feast of John's birth the Eastern Christian sings:

"How shall we call you O prophet? Angel, apostle or martyr: Angel for you have led a non-bodily life. Apostle, for you have taught the nations. Martyr, for you have been beheaded for Christ."

With his right hand, John stands  like a preacher in a pulpit, making a precise point. In his left hand he holds an open scroll with his repentance-call. He stands brightly on the desert rocks, against the silvery background.

He wears a camel skin and an outer blanket-like covering called a himation. In the bottom left of the icon is the little bush with the axe laid against it, calling  to mind the verse found in Matthew 3: 2,10: "Repent! for the Kingdom of Heaven is coming...But the axe is already lying at the roots of the trees. Any tree that fails to produce good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire."

We might want to make short-shrift of a verse like this. Perhaps we don't understand it or we might understand it just enough to make us uncomfortable. Or we might think it's about someone else: the Jews, the Muslims, the atheists, the gays, the Chinese, the abortionists, the heterodox Catholics.

Repent is a word that calls for the  transformation of our minds. This is a very important aspect of religion that  often goes unrecognized, unaddressed, even unaccepted. "I'm not into this justice stuff," one church lady professes. What's that? That the poor have a place at the table? That each person has basic rights? That a certain capitalism can be sinful?

Transformation means - to a new form. "But we have the mind of Christ, Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:16. Another translation says: "But we share the thoughts of Christ." YIKES! Dare we inquire as to what those thoughts of Christ might be? And that they might have to do with things other than sex and being nice?

This new mind is not new doctrines, or old ones rigorously applied, but a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing myself and the world, a new understanding of my purpose. Maybe it's allowing for a new way for God to be God! It's about a new love, which ought not to be confused with  sentiment. Father Pedro Arrupe speaks of it this way:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
Many people think and even self-assuredly say, "I'm fine just the way I am; take it or leave it." No, we're not fine just the way we are. Some Catholic youngsters were confounded by the story from the life of Saint Benedict when the resentful monks poisoned the sacramental wine the saint  would drink. Or the parish, religious order or rectory that's all pulled apart with bickering and power-seeking. Or the new pope acknowledging corruption at the highest levels of the Church, warning the young clerical diplomats against careerism and the priests against becoming collectors of antiques and novelties. We would hope for a greater transformation.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Christ Calling the Apostles

Luke 5: 1-11

JESUS HAS EVERYONE'S ATTENTION IN THIS SCENE: Peter, who is in the water and the others who have their net in the Lake of Gennesaret. The boat is rather charming with its two masts and fancy bow and stern. Perhaps they are doing well as fisherman. In the background we see the hills surrounding the sea. Again, Jesus is in motion, stepping into the invitation to follow him. His right hand is blessing while his left hand holds the scroll of his teaching. We can easily place ourselves in this scene. Once you've done that, you've started meditating.

As Elijah was called from plowing fields,
so the first disciples were called from fishing.
Let us rejoice in our own divine calling,
responding to Jesus with courageous love.

These first disciples were prosperous fisherman,
not poor; not naive.
O Christ, impress upon me,
that to walk with you will exact some price.

The Lord stepped into Peter's boat as if were a pulpit
and sat down to teach the crowds on the shore.
O Jesus, my teacher, what word have you reserved for me today:
leading me from shadow to the joy of your light?

Jesus entered Peter's boat without introduction,
without explanation, then,
Put out a little from the shore.
Christ begins with small requests.

The Lord spoke with a strong voice
God's thundering over the waters.
Fishermen-like, catching souls
for the pre-eminence of love.

The Lord commanded Simon Peter and his friends:
Put out into the deep.
Take me who loves you , O Savior, from shallow living,
out into the depths of your presence, kingdom, love.

Here Christ is calling his first apostles:
the word means one who is sent.
Like twirling children, fallen in all directions:
to the hungry, the exploited, the children, the poor.

Overwhelmed by his unworthiness, Peter addressed Jesus
with the language of divinity, Master and Lord.
Then praise Christ who dispels fear,
and includes us in the work of spreading light.

Like Abraham and Sarah who left it all
these apostles at once abandoned everything for Christ.
Loosen my earthbound grip, O God,
that in new freedom, I might seek you.

At the Lord's instruction they caught so many fish
that their nets were at the breaking point.
But now, not fish but people, Christ says.
Oh, that we would understand humbly.*

*Fishers of men. Some people say, Oh it's just a metaphor. Translate: Oh it's not real. But metaphor doesn't mean something isn't real but rather, it's most real. Some things are beyond description and so we employ images that convey the very deepest, undisguised reality. That's what I mean when I speak of the underneath - looking beyond the obvious.

So when Jesus tells us we won't be catching fish but men, what's he saying? First of all, to be caught is bad for the fish, so the image can only be taken so far. But to catch men; catch women? Does this mean that we'll spread the doctrines of faith and people will be jumping into the net of the Church? I don't think so. That kind of thinking often gets devolved into resentment with those who don't jump in. Then it's us against them and we start calling people names like: pagans, lost, heretics, unbelievers. Wars follow. See the film Black Robe - how the 16th century French Jesuit missions failed here.

But to catch souls? Maybe to catch souls first by catching people in their imagination? Why does that Christian live that way? That someone would be intrigued by a lifestyle of no possessions, forgiveness, self-forgetting service to others, joy, welcoming-love for people as we find them, trust....

Oliver Wendall Holmes said, "I would have considered a calling to the ministry except that so many of the clergy resembled the undertaker." Well! Maybe some would say, "I would have considered becoming a Christian except so many of them are  racist, judgemental, cheating, un-generous, hateful, petty, on auto-pilot."

Brother Roger of Taize said, "Only when the Church becomes a land of simplicity and humility, will people come running."  Maybe the Christians have to be caught first.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Christ Restoring Health to the Centurion's Servant

Luke 7: 1-10

HERE JESUS IS TEACHING IN CAPERNAUM AGAIN. A non-Jewish military leader, who is sympathetic and generous with the Jewish community, has asked for Jesus to come to cure a favorite servant, who later he will refer to as my boy. As Jesus approached the house the soldier sent word by way of friends, that Jesus should not actually come to the house because of the man's felt unworthiness, but please, to heal from a distance. Jesus complied, celebrating the soldier's faith, though he was a Gentile, and the boy was indeed cured.

We see the city and the boy in his bed. He seems to be enjoying some affluence, as the blanket or quilt is bright red and decorated. So are his pajamas. Only the wealthy had access to colors. The centurion and a another soldier are at the bedside with one of the messenger-friends. Though the gospel account doesn't tell us that Jesus ever wound up in the house, here he is shown at the foot of the servant's bed. An apostle has come along, maybe Peter, James or John, the three apostle-insiders. Though Peter is always more identifiable than any of these men. The boy's bed seems to be out in the yard, while the red curtain and the open door suggest the healing took place in the house. Again there is this trans-place going on in the icon: a wonder that goes beyond a particular geography.

When the Lord set out for the centurion's house
the soldier objected, declaring his unworthiness.
And so I stand with this soldier of humility, crying out:
Speak only the word and healing shall be mine.

Capernaum is a place of convergence,
where roads from distant places come together.
O Jesus, meet me in the place of my inner Capernaum,
where light and shadow conjoin.

This centurion had a servant who was sick and near death,
sending friends, beseeching Jesus to come and heal the boy.
O Christ, come and heal again, now, this slave
to power, possessiveness and pride.

The centurion was the leader of a hundred soldiers
with the imperial might of Caesar behind him.
In sickness he realizes his own powerless need,
as Christ sets out to heal where power fails.

It is the Word of Jesus which has real power,
healing even from a distance.
Speak your Word still, O Christ-God;
heal our world where we are far from your truth.

The Jewish elders told Jesus, This man is worthy of your attention.
But the centurion sent others to tell the Lord, I am unworthy of your visit.
In humility, let us rejoice in everything given:
unmerited gifts.

The centurion's slave was highly valued.
Quickly Jesus shares what's important to us.
Let's never trouble Jesus with trivial things,
but bring to him our secrets, born from deep within.

In Bethlehem's humility, the Lord assumed our form;
and the centurion asked for healing through the intercession of friends.
Glorify Christ whose Word demolishes pride
and raises us up, encouraged by love.

Jesus marveled when the Gentile soldier
trusted in his power to heal.
And I will share this commander's believing:
Jesus, beneath the roof of my soul.

The centurion sent a delegation, asking the Lord,
Heal my servant by your distant word.
And I will be a centurion too,
and Christ will delight in faith such as this!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On the Feast of Saint Romuald

TODAY IS THE FEAST OF SAINT ROMUALD. The little biography here gives the most basic information  about his life - much more extensive portraits are found in many other places.

Saint Romuald was the founder of the Camaldolese monks (of the monastery of Campo Maldoli, in Tuscany) one of  the Italian branches of the Benedictines, in which the eremetical (hermit) life is combined with life in community. He died on this day in 1027, after a life of prayer, silence and rigorous penance.

As a young boy in the early 1960's I became aware of a softcover book for Catholic young people called The Guidepost. This book contained black and white pictures and descriptions of all the religious orders of men in the United States. I put my three single dollar bills in an envelope (no one worried about putting cash in the mail then) and a letter to Washington, D.C. asking for a copy. I wasn't much of  a reader in those days, but when it arrived it became my book above any other, including my school textbooks.

The orders which most intrigued me were contemplative or monastic orders: Trappists, Carthusians, Cistercians. I remember the picture of the young Camaldolese monk: wrapped in a white mantle, sitting on a wooden straight backed chair in a stark room, bearded, shaved head, silent. That spoke to me, as they say. But when I told other people of my interest in that life of silent aloneness with God, they dismissed it.

My mother had been a Methodist and didn't understand monastic life at all. She thought it was a wasted life and directed me to active religious orders. I eventually joined the Franciscans in the crazy late 1960's - left in a year, pursued a degree in education and began teaching grade school in Harlem. In time I found my way to seminary and its four years of study. But all along the way, this image of the Camaldolese monk niggled at me. I told a priest-friend that I felt I should leave the seminary and go to the Camaldolese, where I could become the God-alone monk with the mantle by the wood stove. The friend told me, "If you go to the Camaldolese I'll write to the prior and tell him you're psychotic." That's kind of funny.

When I turned fifty I knew I had to go to at least see the place I would have rushed to at eighteen, had I felt encouraged. I drove across the state of Pennsylvania and found Holy Family Hermitage in the low mountains of Eastern Ohio. Father Basil, the prior, received me kindly, listening to my story about The Guidepost and the young monk in the photo. I think I was the one who initiated the request to see inside a monk's hermitage.

As we stepped over the threshold, through the gate and into a high walled hermitage garden, I thought I was in heaven - entering a very deep inner place that God had ignited or awakened in me as a boy. But I was at once taken by how poor and rough the hermitage was: the twin bed with the ordinary mattress in an alcove, the shower stall with the hot water heater which held about three minutes of hot water. The little chapel (called an oratory) was disappointing. There was only a small table for eating, studying and working. I imagined at once how I'd fix up the place and transform the garden into my own little Eden.

After visiting the hermitage ( or cell as they're called) Father Basil and I sat in a small parlor and talked. I told him about my work with young people in recovery, about the retreat house I'd created, about the parish I was pastoring. At the end, when I took a breath, he said: "It's clear to me that you don't have a vocation to this life." I was hurt, as if a door had just been slammed shut. But then he added: "But it's also clear to me that you don't pay enough attention to your contemplative aspect." He may have said, contemplative dimension. Instantly, the crisis was solved; the niggling left me. I understood at once what he meant and began to wonder how I might live in this insight. Indeed, there is a little monk in each person of faith - that place that longs to go beyond what's earthbound and to make the discoveries that are to be revealed only in silence and aloneness with God.

Some people are fascinated by monks and nuns who live isolated lives of work and prayer, but we become terrified at the thought of any prolonged silence or aloneness for ourselves. Parents with young children say they crave aloneness and quiet, but when they are away from their families they have to phone home and if they are out with just their spouse for an evening they often can't talk about anything except the children. Recently it was reported that 70% of young people said they couldn't be without their phones for more than 24 hours.

Many of us claim to have no alone or quiet time, yet we surround ourselves with sound even when we're alone. A group of young people said they'd forfeit their gift of smell if it meant keeping their phones!  I stayed in a hotel room once that had a phone and a radio in the fancy shower and a television next to the toilet. Many of us can't drive in silence. And non-stop talking seems to be on the increase. When I was chaplain to a school for young people in repair it was common for a student to talk non-stop for even up to twenty minutes or more. And as soon as I would start to respond, the young person's eyes would glaze over and they'd start looking around the room at the stuff on the walls. One time I asked, "Can you tell me what I just said?" Negative.

Silence matters. Here's a picture of Saint Bruno making the point. Young Samuel heard God repeatedly speaking in the silence of the temple at night. And when he put two and two together, he didn't run away but said, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening."

We might have a look at that engaging story of Samuel,  found in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) 1 Samuel 3:1ff. Then simply sit and be still.

"But it's also clear to me that you don't pay enough attention to  your contemplative aspect."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Christ Restoring Health to the Paralytic

Mark 2: 1-12

ISN'T THIS ICON WONDERFUL (FULL OF WONDER)? Jesus is sitting because he is teaching. Sitting signifies authority. The iconographer has painted some of the crowd. The fellow on the left is perhaps interrogating Jesus, "Who are you to forgive sins?" The younger man in the middle has his hands up in the air - perhaps in awe of what he's hearing. The wide-eyed man second from the right, who is nervously adjusting his sleeve and looking away, seems to be saying or thinking, uh oh, as he hears Jesus forgive sins. He knows this will spell trouble for Jesus with the religious leaders. 

Two of the four friends are looking through the hole they've made in the roof and through which they've lowered their handicapped friend. The sick man stretched out on the portable bed, his head propped up on a pillow, is looking hopefully at Jesus who is addressing him.

There's a mix of inside and outside world here, right? The house door is open but Jesus and the man are outside, even though we know the scene is inside the house. That was the whole point of opening the roof and lowering the man down in the first place. Remember that icons depict not just the outer historical event but the underneath - the whats' really going on here. And so the perspective is off, as we'd say. What matters is God's perspective, God's idea, what God is doing.

Capernaum is far distant, Way of the sea beyond Jordan.
Jesus the Lord has left Nazareth and settled there.
Let us allow Christ to venture deeply to the far away place within
and there a light will dawn.

The Savior was surrounded by so dense a crowd
it was impossible to get the needy man to him.
O let us hurry to be part of that crowd,
that I might hear Christ's teaching and glorify God.

Having healed first the soul of the paralyzed man,
Christ the Lord ordered him to rise up and walk.
And so the people marveled and glorified Christ,
who works awesome wonders!

The paralyzed man, healed by Christ, is truly an image of ourselves
set before the Lord by the faith of others.
I join the long story of holy believers,
and glorify Christ from the waters of the font.

When the paralyzed man was lowered through the roof,
Jesus the teacher said, Your sins are forgiven.
Christ is not shocked by my past; neither should I be.
But thanks to Christ for his eternal mercies.

Divinity is revealed in the forgiveness of sins,
a physical cure and the reading of human hearts.
O Christ, I will stand with the four faithful friends,
whose hearts are clean, trusting in you.

Jesus was inwardly aware of their thoughts
as they accused him of blasphemy by his forgiveness of sins.
Yes, let us be zealous to please the Lord and Savior,
by merciful thinking that lifts others up.

While the roof is torn open,
all the more is heaven
and Christ-flame leaps down
to forgive and heal.

The healed man got up and walked in front of everyone.
Let us emulate this restored friend:
With gladness and without fear,
glorify Christ the Savior.

Capernaum you caught the Lord's scolding for your failure to turn,
though you'd heard the Lord's teaching and witnessed his wonders.
And so, let us not be dull of heart
but find a new standing in the changing of our minds. *

* Jesus asks for repentance. And repentance is not some mysterious thing but an inner turning: the changing of our minds. When was the last time you witnessed someone really changing his/her mind about something that matters: "You know, I was wrong about that, forgive me." "Thank you, I never looked at it that way." "It was very foolish of me to say that, I'm sorry." "Oh, your idea is a much better one."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Christ Restoring Health to the Hunched Woman

Luke 13: 11-17

In Luke's gospel Jesus reveals a particularly courteous affection for women, making this one of the most joyful accounts found in the gospels. Here, a woman appears who has been disabled for eighteen years. Poor lady, she is doubled over and can only view the ground. We can imagine her joy, when the first thing she sees after the miracle is the face of Jesus!

Of course, as the cure takes place on the Sabbath, the temple officials are put out. As if God would withhold healing because it's the Sabbath! What was going on with them that they couldn't share the joy? It's such  a disappointment when religion becomes sour and withholding. Anyway, that doesn't stop Jesus. Here in the icon some of the apostles are gathered closely behind Jesus. We see the village landscape and the synagogue in the background. The woman is smiling - she knows Jesus will help! She is dressed in a rosy colored robe - like the pink in one's cheeks when we are becoming well again.

On a Sabbath Christ straightened the woman who'd been bound for eighteen years,
while the resentful synagogue president taunted the Redeemer.
But we, with that healed woman,
now glorify Christ the Lord!

Let us flee from the Pharisee's thinking
which forgets expansive love.
Yes, while faithfully observing our obligations to God,
let us not neglect Christ's law of love for our neighbor.

The Pharisees cannot share the joy
of God's working as God wills.
Yes, let us share each other's joy
and celebrate God's nearness, overcoming dark with light.

While her ailment was physical, mine is interior:
bent over as I am with anxiety and loss.
But with the straightened woman, I glorify Christ,
who stands me upright in wholeness.

In anger the Lord castigates the hypocrite:
you are not what you appear to be.
No rather, let us make of ourselves a new likeness
living in growth and authenticity.

Let us praise the Healer, Christ in Glory,
who came into our world to salvage humankind.
Oh Christ, who heals the woman and the others with disease,
You advance upon our deformity from within!

Let us all be filled with the love of Christ,
knowing tender compassion for those we meet.
Yes, let us be whole and perfected through Christ,
and with our brothers and sisters gain en-spirited life.

Once a woman approached Christ with faith in him;
she sought the healing which would stand her upright.
At once, the Savior's Word went out and healed her completely,
for Christ is Lord and God!

A possessing Spirit has crippled this woman
and so the healing she seeks is spiritual.
Look! Let us move with Christ against Satan's empire,
and rejoice with him in establishing God's rule!

His adversaries were confounded, while the people joyful at the signs he worked:
Christ, establishing the pre-eminence of love.
Yes Lord, let us love well,
and like the new-standing woman, see you face to face.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Christ Restoring Health to the Ten Lepers

Luke 17: 11-19

Here is an icon of Jesus healing the lepers. Only four of the ten are shown. Notice how the men come to Jesus in a disposition of great need: bent over and with arms and hands out-stretched and open. These poor fellows hardly own clothing. Don't they represent humanity in its most vulnerable place?  Again, Jesus is in motion and with his own blessing hand at the ready. How eager Jesus is to touch and connect - both of which the purity laws strictly forbade. The rules required lepers to stay out of villages, and so we see the mountains in the background. Perhaps these are hills in which the lepers lived with only one another for company. Opposite the mountains we see the borderland village Jesus entered and where the encounter took place. Wearing a short beard, Peter is behind Jesus, looking away. The other younger apostle has a quizzical look about him. Perhaps as they saw Jesus reach out to the despised lepers the apostles were confounded and asked, "What's he up to now!?"

In that nameless village ten lepers were healed,
yet only one returned to give thanks and praise to God.
With that one faithful foreigner I will thank Christ the Healer:
Heaven's interface with humankind.

Walking in the borderland between Samaria and Galilee,
Christ is in hostile territory.
Let us go then to meet him in that inner place,
where hostility and estrangement reside.

Beholding Christ some distance away,
the lepers called out, Jesus! Master! Pity!
Oh, let us entreat Christ as well -
that he would draw near to heal us of our own sorrow and loss.

Let us be done with an unmindful way.
Yes, let us live wisely and return to Christ the Light,
seeing him face to face in wonder,
gratitude and joy!

Beholding God's mercies and presence in our lives,
let us join the one grateful stranger.
Turning back to praise God at the top of our voices,
prostrate before Christ-God, let us thank him!

Let us pay great attention to the Lord's insruction,
Stand up and go on your way!
On my feet I set out in friendship with Christ:
I am an eleventh healed-wonder!

Samaritans were heretics, enemies and strangers:
yet Christ discerned faith in this restored man.
O Jesus, who knows me so well,
be pleased where you find believing in me!

On his way to Jerusalem when he met the lepers,
the Lord healed them of their disease.
Let us not forget Christ, who from the cross near Jerusalem,
heals us of sin and all spiritual sickness.

In ignorance and hiding I have become a foreigner to God.
But Christ is not scandalized and neither should I be.
Yes, full of joyful tears I cry out:
Oh true God, thank you for your kind mercies.

In meeting the Samaritan-leper made well,
Christ the Lord asked, Where are the other nine?
O Jesus, what question do you ask of me?
Grant I'd not hide from the sound of your voice.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua

It is the feast of the much-loved saint of Padua, Saint Anthony. I don't think I have ever gone inside a Catholic church where there has not been an image of Anthony. He is so loved, even non-Catholics have recourse to him. I expect many people have no idea who he is, contenting themselves with his title "Finder of Lost Things." Despite the fact that Anthony lived 1200 years after the birth of Jesus, I've even met people who think he knew  Jesus, as he is most often depicted with the Holy Child in his arms.

The text below is taken from the old Saint Andrew Missal, offering a basic introduction to the life of Anthony. Following that are a few gentle corrective thoughts and a new prayer.

St. Anthony was born at Lisbon, in Portugal. He became first a canon regular, then a Franciscan, and preached the Gospel everywhere in Portugal and Italy. Both as a theologian and as a popular preacher he fought vigorously against heresy. His preaching was inspired by the love of God and of souls and had an extraordinary power of conviction; it was filled with the penetrating power of the bible, so that Gregory IX, who heard him preach, called him during his lifetime the  "Arca Testamenti," meaning by this: "the living respository or the Holy Scripture", and Pius XII, when he proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church, declared that he based all that he said on the texts of the Gospels, and could justly be called the Evangelical Doctor. He lived for a time in France, but chiefly in Italy, and died at Padua in 1231 aged 35, with the reputation of great sanctity. From the day of his death innumerable miracles cause the faithful to invoke him as wonder worker of untiring benevolence.

Priests often hear people attest to the miracles and wonders they experience in their lives. Perhaps most often are those relating to things found through the intercession of Saint Anthony: the finding of  keys, the wallet, the wedding ring in the ocean, the envelope with money, the eyeglasses. It has always seemed to me a terrible trivialization of the saint to reduce him to this level of finding things. We are after all the followers of the one who said, "Own nothing."

I was at a summer barbecue where a woman got into a minor panic that she had misplaced her camera. After searching and asking around for awhile, someone called out, "Pray to Saint Anthony." Then of course someone added the little chant, "Tony, Tony come around, something's lost that must be found." I added, "Of course, you know the deal: if he finds it for you, you owe twenty bucks to a Franciscan charity." The woman who'd lost the camera stopped and looked at me and said with some indignation: "Well, I never heard that." The thought of having to give to charity after heaven found her expensive toy seemed to offend her. When indeed the camera turned up, I told her I could help her to find a worthy Franciscan cause. No response.

When someone suggested to Dorothy Day that she was a living saint she answered quickly, "Don't dismiss me so easily." We can't handle the real Gospel-Anthony, and so we make him into something more manageable: a delicate Anthony, holding lilies and the baby Jesus. Or Anthony carried on parade through town, covered in ribbons and pinned dollar bills.

This image of Anthony, painted by Sebastiano Ricci, shows the saint with a sick young man. In the 13th century that infected leg could have been nasty. The young man may well have  needed to be on his feet in order  to work, keeping his family out of poverty. Is that the boy's mother propping up his pillow? I prefer to think of Anthony in sick rooms rather than holed up in his own room, some invasive friar peering through the key hole, watching  Anthony holding the Child of Bethlehem.

In this more contemporary image of Anthony, it appears to be night time, the woods and stones illumined by  moon light. Anthony is stopped in his tracks. He's got his bible and cross with him. Maybe he's been up all night with someone dying, someone crazed, afraid or sick. He even seems to have something of an "attitude" in his face - as if he could be saying, "What are you looking at? Don't romanticize or idolize mine, but get back to your own works of mercy." Ouch!

Did you hear about the woman who was mugged and her phone was stolen? The police were able to find the mugger and retrieve the phone by the technology contained within the phone itself. Now if you lose the car in the mall or stadium parking lot you simply hit a button on the key and a signal enables you to find the vehicle. Surveillance cameras help us to find thieves and terrorists. So what do we need Anthony to help us find?

Saint Anthony, that I would find a willingness to be more generous, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find the courage to live in real goodness, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find the mind of Christ, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find a welcoming space in my heart for others, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find the life beyond resentment, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find my voice and dignity as God's child, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find my way to seeing others as God sees them, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find a fresh approach to prayer, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find a new depth of gratitude, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find freedom from possessiveness, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find healing for old  inner wounds, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find the guiding light of the gospels, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find a release from self-pity and cynicism, pray for me.
Saint Anthony, that I would find joy, pray for me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Christ Expelling Demons from the Possessed Man

Mark 1: 21-28

This miracle takes place in the synagogue at Capernaum. Only Jesus has a nimbus (halo) and so we might suspect that the others, who are standing around watching, are people from the synagogue. The building in the background is the synagogue itself. That there is a curtain stretched across the top of the building suggests that (as the gospel recounts) the miracle occurred inside, after Jesus had completed his teaching. Notice that Jesus is walking in the icon, as if advancing upon the inner empire which has claimed the poor fellow. The small winged figure between the man's raised arms symbolizes the foreign spirit which Jesus expelled.

One Sabbath in the synagogue, a possessed man was brought to Christ,
who freed him, restoring everything to God.
Let us keep ourselves an inner Sabbath-synagogue -
a place reserved for holiness and God's own shared life.

Ordering the disturbed spirit to Be quiet and depart,
the man was left at peace before the Lord.
Let us open ourselves to that same Word of Christ,
whose friendship saves us from a downcast heart.

As the demon was expelled by Christ,
the man was thrown into convulsions.
O Christ, who convulses my old rebellion,
leave me restored, sound and glad.

Let us pay great attention as Christ's secret is revealed,
I know who you are, Holy one of God.
And so let us be zealous in knowing Jesus the Savior,
whose Word fills our ears with amazement. (Sirach 43:24)

The world is filled with unclean spirit, disturbing forces of rebellion.
But in Christ who exorcises demons, there is God,
whose Kingdom is one of truth and life  -
holiness and grace.

Filled as I am with sensation and impression,
all the more I will marvel at Christ the Lord.
For in his Word I hear the voice of the Father,
and in his glance is revealed God's human face.

Let us go to Christ who teaches with authority.
And as the demons obeyed him, all the more may I:
keeping his commandments,
remaining close to him in love.

The people were astonished and pondered the meaning
when the foul demon had left the man.
In the joyful crowd I will celebrate Christ's teaching,
which frees me from the slavery of my own reasonings.

The possessive spirit was foreign and personal,
hostile, convulsing and loud.
At the voice of Thy thunder shall they be afraid.
At Thy rebuke they will flee. (Psalm 103: 7,8)

The Lord went to Capernaum and taught on the Sabbath;
his teaching made a deep impression on them all.
And so let us be finished with  false teachers in our lives
and choose a way of inner freedom and light.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Jesus Cures the Man Born Blind ~ Those Who See, Those Who Do Not

This Gospel Account is multi-layered and rich in symbolism. Even though we might think we know the story, we would do well to have another look before praying the verses. Take note of the icon as well; the scene within the scene.

John 9: 1-41

This man's problem is deeper than most,
his blindness is from birth.
Let us find our way to Christ, Light of the World,
illumination for humankind.

The Lord's restoration reveals baptismal themes:
washing, enlightenment, healing - faith, conversion, salvation.
Glorify the Lord with me;
let us exalt his name together. (Psalm 34: 3)

The Lord's time with us is limited.
There is urgency in his words.
O Christ, bring a new time of light into our darkened world,
lest we be lost utterly to the night.

The Lord fulfills Isaiah's promise:
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened. (Is. 35:5)
Glorify Christ, of whom the blind man becomes aware,
while Pharisees devolve into deeper darkness.

The muddy-eyed man makes his stumbling way, to the temple,
some distance from the Siloam Pool.
And I will trust the Lord in hopeful expectation
on the halting way to my own illumination.

The Pharisees already have Christ on trial:
doubting, discrediting, belittling, accusing.
They take the oath, Give God the glory,
while the once blind man holds on to his belief.

In opening the eyes of the man born blind,
the Lord really opens the eyes of his heart:
that Christ is God, sent to save us from darkness;
that earth is crammed with heaven. *

The Lord made clay, as in the beginning;
a mix of dust and spittle.
Christ is divine, working still,
making of us a new illumined humanity.

The one now-seeing shares what he knows,
and what it means at last to see:
that God has kissed our world in Christ;
that heaven is already here.

The new see-er reveals the cure,
how to be healed of spiritual blindness:
I washed, and now I see.
Oh, to obtain a clean heart!

*The phrase crammed with heaven, comes from the novel/poem, Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Christ Restoring Health to the Canaanite Woman's Daughter

Matthew 15:21-28

There is apparently some confusion in this icon as it claims to depict the restoration to inner freedom of a Canaanite girl. But the young person on the bed is a young man with short hair and no shirt. An icon painter told me he thought it was a girl, as icons never sensualize the human figure. I'm inclined to think that it is simply an error on the part of the icon studio which painted the image. No matter. While sharing the icon the verses will reflect the gospel account: that it was the woman's daughter who was healed.

That this mother has a wrong theology
doesn't bother or hinder Jesus.
But let us learn Christ's way of divine compassion
and the mother's way of deep believing.

Here is a model of victorious faith,
a double outsider: a Gentile-Woman.
Let us go with Jesus who affirms God's good order,
destroying distance; drawing all to himself.

To the imploring mother, the Lord declared, O woman you have great faith,
as the girl was raised up from the captivity of darkness.
Like dreamers our mouths were filled with laughter
and our tongues with rejoicing! (Psalm 126:1)

This Canaanite woman has left her district
to find the Lord and the desired freedom.
And so Christ awaits me on the other side,
with gifts of healing and delight.

When the Canaanite woman came before Jesus,
she knelt like a Christian, calling him, Lord.
Now undeterred, I approach crying out:
Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.

When Jesus rather crudely called her people, dogs,
the Gentile woman persisted, asking for healing.
And I will keep this woman as my spiritual friend,
and call out, Lord, despite Christ's seeming reluctance.

Though the woman's daughter was tormented by a demon,
the evangelist called her freedom an instant healing.
Let us emulate this mother, whose prayer is insistent,
and give Jesus the joy of my own great faith.

Surrounded by enemies, Jesus has withdrawn
to the Gentile area of Tyre and Sidon.
Then say among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed." (Psalm 126:2,3)

The Lord claimed he'd come for the lost sheep of Israel,
then changed his mind and restored the Gentile's' daughter.
Let us be glad for this post Easter sign:
the future fullness of God's Kingdom - salvation for all!

When Jesus called the Jews the children who eat first,
The woman attested she'd be glad for crumbs.
Let us follow the pattern of this trusting mother,
having faith in Christ who supplies what is needed.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Jesus Calms the Stormy Sea

Mark 4: 35-41

Hear the mysterious gospel words:
They took Jesus in the boat, just as he was.
Lord Jesus,  I come to you, just as I am:
divided, confounded, hopeful and poor.

And there were other boats with them:
an armada of faith.
O Christ, I will follow you in humility and love.
Even as you sleep in the boat of my life.

The apostles were swamped by wind and wave
imploring Jesus, Master we are lost.
But let us rest comfortably beside Christ the Lord,
trusting he will see us to safety and peace.

You awoke and addressed the wind and sea,
Quiet now, be calm,
O Jesus, speak words of power when I am lost
in the grip of worry and doubt.

O Christ, Lord of nature:
You calm the turmoil of the seas.
Your miracles bring shouts of joy
to the gateways of morning and evening. (Psalm 65:7,8)

When the Lord asked the apostles: Have you no faith?
he wondered, as they had witnessed his miracles.
And so we glorify Christ our God,
who spares us in compassion, dwelling in need.

The apostles were preserved from drowning
by the Lord's powerful word.
But overcome with awe they said to one another,
Even the wind and sea obey him!

O Christ our God, you asked for faith,
so I come before you in abandonment and trust.
Letting go of reliance upon my own strengths,
I surrender to your power and life-guiding Word.

In the calming of the sea, O Christ,
you were dismayed at our lack of faith.
But in joy and truth, I will not disappoint you;
receive the offering of my energies and heart.:

In the calming of the threatening sea,
Christ the Master established God's rule.
Dis'mantling Satan's Kingdom without walls:
O Christ our God, glory to you!