First Wednesday in Advent

Moses on the Mountain of God (1991) by Albert Herbert.

“Our alternative to dehumanizing, scientific, economic objectivity is not sentimentality or shapeless love. It is objective love—a dispassionate passion. It is the passion of God for all people—regardless of habit or custom, race or disposition, gender or economic status. It is a daring and brave position, but it is one that sides with God who stretches our hearts and minds this Advent to see the stranger, the dispossessed, and the outcast, and invites us to love. O God, enlarge and warm the caverns of our hearts this Advent.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine … And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”—Isaiah 25: 6-7

The God who creates and destroys is fundamentally ambiguous to our human mind. It is an assault on our attempt to create moral order and coherency in the world. It is an assault on our need to control.

The mountain of God is sometimes compared to a nursing breast. The people are entranced by it. It is their whole world. It provides essential nourishment. They can’t live without it. They are completely vulnerable and dependent on this mountain. It is this dependency that creates fear. What if the life-giver becomes the life-taker? This fear may then generate separation and, eventually, individuality.

It is this process, which is repeated many times through one’s life, which makes us distinct and unique.

How can you learn to embrace creation and destruction, life and death, certainty and doubt?

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad……vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

First Monday in Advent

“Advent is a season of silence and rest with God. Take time to focus and examine your conscience. What is the shape of your emptiness? How are you still connected to God’s abiding beauty? This Advent, how will you fulfill the work of giving Christ life?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.'” Matthew 8: 5-6

Advent is a time of ambiguity. It invites us to embrace conflicting images. Not to harmonize them into one, but to simply let our soul be tempered and strengthened by the fire this conflict creates.

In the story of the centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant, we have the warrior and the weak. Our imagination expects several things.

First, since Jesus has just healed a leper, one of the least of these, maybe he’s tired and doesn’t need to heal again.

Second, Jesus isn’t a collaborator with the Romans. Why would he even speak with a centurion—storm trooper of the state?

Third, we expect the mighty centurion to ask for something for himself or one of his family—not to act with compassion for a servant.

Finally, we don’t expect the Roman commander to become an occasion for Jesus to be amazed, saying, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Today, pay attention to your response to ambiguity.

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

First Sunday of Advent

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things until the habit of Advent returns to us.” Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”—Romans 13:11

Gathered around the Advent wreath, the youngest child asks: Why do we light this candle? The elder answers: We light the first Advent candle to remind us of the promise of the prophets that a Messiah would come, bringing peace with justice and love to the world.

Advent is about knowing what time it is. Though we try to stay spiritually awake, we are human. We fall asleep. We are lulled into the addictive habits and patterns of the world. We begin to act and think and live like unbelievers—like those whose vision is not shaped by God.

There are basic question that every human will eventually ask. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? These are the essential questions of the human spirit. They are the questions that launch the quest into the nature of our mystery. Advent is a time specifically set aside in the liturgical year to accompany those questions.

It will require us to walk in dark places, sometimes without even a flicker of light. We will listen to prophets railing about the end of time—exploding our known and familiar world, our moral and cognitive self-understanding—until we are blown back to our essential elements. Advent will reduce us to atoms, bits of stardust. “We are only syllables of the Perfect Word,” says Caryll Houselander. We will be uncreated. We will be made feminine, until our nothingness becomes a nest.

On the first Sunday of Advent we must get ready to get ready. The alarm clock is about to go off. We are about to be roughly roused. We will be shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves. For this, we must prepare. God invites us on a journey. We are only lacking one piece of information. We have no idea where we are going.

What do you need to do to prepare?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

December 2, 1980: Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean

“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish and, some day, to bring forth life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in the heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the wellspring of Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of Abba in heaven.”Matthew 7:21

On December 2, 1980, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan—Catholic missionaries from the United States—were murdered by National Guardsmen in El Salvador. Dorothy and Jean were driving to the airport outside San Salvador to pick up Maura and Ita.

On the way back from the airport, they were pulled over at a roadblock by National Guardsmen. The four women were taken to an isolated location, raped, tortured, and shot. Then they were buried in a shallow grave beside the road. The National Guardsmen were also “good Catholics.”

These four women died in the same manner as many of the poor Salvadoran people they served. They are martyrs because they laid down their lives in love for the poor—just as Jesus calls all Christians to be prepared to do. The witness of these four women teaches us about listening to the call of Christ, taking up the cross and following Jesus, and being born again.

A stone cross and small plaque mark the country road where the four women were buried. It reads: “Receive them Lord into your Kingdom.”

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

First Thursday in Advent

 "Fishers of Men" by Rex DeLoney, Little Rock, Arkansas
“Fishers of Men” by Rex DeLoney, Little Rock, Arkansas

“This Advent, our Advent, is a time of creation. God’s spirit abides in us—brooding over our waters—shaping and forming us, being formed and shaped by us. God alone knows what we shall become. God has visited us with grace and favor. Are we ready to become Light?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers … And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately, they left their nets and followed him”.—Matthew 4: 18-20

There is a church near my house called “Fisherman of Men Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.” The insistently masculine language always makes me laugh. It’s as if the church-namers knew that the narrow image of a patriarchal God was on its way out and so over- compensate. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, “Me thinks they doth protest too much.”

Paradoxically, I find this invitation from Jesus to Peter and Andrew, then James and John, to be distinctly subversive of patriarchy. Jesus woos them like a lover. He seduces them into leaving their fathers’ houses, like young women leaving home to join the home of their husband’s family.

These men respond to Jesus as if they are in love. There is no cognitive decision making. They fall in love. They drop their nets—representing their known world. They follow, like a lover after her beloved. They have eyes only for him.

When were you last in love?

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad……vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Rowan Williams: Bonhoeffer, Lent, and Freedom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Anglican Archbishop of Cantebury, Rowan Williams, preached at King’s School Canterbury on the first Sunday of Lent this year. He took his text from Confessing Church theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the nature of true freedom and what it means that “the truth shall set you free.” Quiet contemplation and learning to release the “fictions” of our lives are part of the Lenten practice.

You can read Williams’ entire sermon or listen to it here. Below is the opening section:

In 1939, the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was in New York, exploring whether he should stay there as pastor to the German emigrants in the city and considering a string of invitations to lecture in the United States.  He had made himself deeply unpopular with the German regime, making broadcasts critical of Hitler and running a secret training institution for pastors in Germany who could not accept the way that the Nazi state was trying to control the Church.

But, after a draining inner struggle, he decided to sail back to Germany.  In July 1939, after just over a month in New York, he left – knowing that he was returning to a situation of extreme danger.  Six years later, he was dead, executed for treason in a concentration camp, leaving behind him one of the greatest treasure of modern Christianity in the shape of the letters he wrote to family and close friends from prison.  He had left behind the chance of freedom as most of us would understand it and plunged into a complex and risky world, getting involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, living as a double agent, daily facing the prospect of arrest, torture and death.

But freedom was one of the things he most often wrote about.  In a famous poem he wrote in July 1944, he sketched out what he thought was involved in real freedom – discipline, action, suffering and death.  Not quite what we associate with the word – but with these reflections, he takes us into the heart of what it is for someone to be lastingly free.

The freedom he is interested in is the freedom to do what you know you have to do.  The society you live in will give you all sorts of messages about what you should be doing, and, far more difficult, your own longings and preferences will push you in various directions.  You have to watch your own passions and feelings and test them carefully, and then you have to have the courage to act.  When you act, you take risks.  You seemingly become less free.  But what is really happening is that you are handing over your freedom to God and saying, ‘I’ve done what I had to; now it’s over to you.’  Freedom, he says, is ‘perfected in glory’ when it’s handed over to God.  And this finds its climax in the moment of death, when we step forward to discover what has been hidden all along – the eternal freedom of God, underlying everything we have thought and done. … —Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Cantebury

Read Rowan Williams’ complete sermon.

Richard Rohr: The Political Subversion of ‘Jesus Is Lord’

“Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:10) was proclaimed by the early church as their most concise creedal statement. No one ever told me this was a political and subversive statement, until I studied the Scriptures. To say “Jesus is Lord” was testing and provoking the Roman pledge of allegiance that every Roman citizen had to shout when they raised their hand to the Roman insignia: “Caesar is Lord.” Early Christians were quite aware that their “citizenship” was in a new universal kingdom, announced by Jesus (Philippians 3:20), and that the kingdoms of this world were not their primary loyalty systems. How did we manage to lose that? And what price have we paid for it?

Jesus showed no undue loyalty either to his Jewish religion nor to his Roman-occupied Jewish country; instead, he radically critiqued both of them, and in that he revealed and warned against the idolatrous relationships that most people have with their country and their religion. It has allowed us to justify violence in almost every form and to ignore much of the central teaching of Jesus.–Richard Rohr, OFM

Adapted from Spiral of Violence by Richard Rohr.

‘Christianity is a Lifestyle’

Please keep me in your prayers as I prepare myself for tomorrow’s Tar Sands Action at the White House. It will likely end in a “very civil civil disobedience,” as Bill McKibben says – and arrest. To date, 381 people have been arrested. Monday’s “religious contingent” will likely be the largest group yet. I’m grateful to be able to live my “Christian lifestyle” out loud in this way – to take a small political risk for the gospel.

It seems to me that it is a minority that gets the true and full gospel. We just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says “worship me!” He says, “follow me” (e.g., Matthew 4:19).

Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, nonviolent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into a clever “religion,” in order to avoid the lifestyle itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain, and still believe that Jesus is their “personal Lord and Savior.” The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

Adapted from Center for Action and Contemplation: Gospel Call to Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) and Contemplative Prayer

Joan Chittister: What Is Dissent?

What is dissent?

I don’t remember exactly when I first began to notice the shift of circumstances, the change in attitudes, but I do know that every day the truth of the difference between past and present religious evolutions got more and more clear for me.

What has for long years been considered “dissent” in the churches by those who want more answers than questions, more clerical authority than spiritual investment may not be real dissent at all. People are not challenging Christianity and leaving the Church. They are not arguing against the need for a spiritual life. They are not denying God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. They are not ridiculing religion and going away. On the contrary. People currently considered “excommunicated” or “suspect” or “heretical” or “smorgasbord” believers are, in many ways, among the most intense Christians of our time. They do more than sing in the choir or raise money for the parish center or fix flowers for the church. They care about it and call it to be its truest self. They question it, not to undermine it, but to strengthen it. They call for new ways of being church together. They do not dismiss the need for the spiritual life. They crave it. What’s more, they look for it in their churches. But they crave more than ritual. They crave meaning. They look for more than salvation. They look for authenticity and the integrity of the faith.

Women, in particular, find themselves with theological questions that will not go away and immerse themselves in the struggle to bring the churches to be what the churches say they are. Men grapple to reconcile what the institution teaches with what the institution does. These men and women do not abandon the spiritual life, however distant their association with the churches that feel so distant from them. If anything, they try harder to provide for themselves the kind of fullness of the spiritual life their churches fail to provide or even deny, for whatever reason. They reach out everywhere to everything that will provide new insights, new awareness of the presence of God.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From In Search of Belief (Liguori) by Joan Chittister

Thomas Merton: ‘Turning an Adversary to a Collaborator’

“…for non-violence seeks to ‘win’ not by destroying or even by humiliating the adversary, but by convincing him that there is a higher and more certain common good than can be attained by bombs and blood. Non-violence, ideally speaking, does not try to overcome the adversary by winning over him, but to turn him from an adversary into a collaborator by winning him over.”–Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (1968)