Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Word on Holy Patience

[Jesus] put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
Matthew 13:24-30, NRSV

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
Psalm 37, vv. 7-9, BCP version

+  +  +

The appointed morning Psalm and the Gospel lesson today in the Episcopal Daily Office Lectionary both focus on a difficult and demanding practice for disciples: holy patience. This virtue needs to be reaffirmed in our troubled and angry times, both for what it is—and what it is not.

The passage from Matthew, usually referred to as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (or, the Wheat among the Weeds) is a parable of judgment (God’s v. ours) and also a parable urging a special kind of patience or forbearance.

This is not a passive, uninterested, or ethereal sort of patience. It does not ignore or deny suffering and wrong. It is deeply aware of and involved in the wrong of the world (likened here to the presence of a destructive weed in the midst of a good and life-sustaining food crop). But this type of patience knows that responding to the wrong with violent or aggressive anger will—no matter how gratifying in the moment, no matter how “it gets the job done”—ultimately compound the problem, ripping up good with bad and leaving the whole field in tatters.

Such an attitude is essentially atheistic, in no way relying on a deep communion with God. It is also an open invitation to yet another round of “the ends justify the means.”

Instead, the parable counsels, we must be honest about the wrong while not multiplying it. We aren’t supposed to equate wheat with weeds or good with bad…but we are to preserve the good rather than destroy it in some sort of human-directed war of attrition with the bad.

To this picture the psalm adds the observation that anger and fretting, by themselves, do not lead to the desired outcome. They are fundamentally destructive, not constructive, ways of responding to wrong. They may be “natural,” but in this world, what is “natural” for humans is generally twisted and sickened without the constant infusion of God’s grace. Rather, we are to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” which is another way of saying (in Christian terms) we must place ourselves in deep communion with God and respond (not react) when and how the Triune Majesty calls us.

The parable and the psalm here are not urging quiescence…not at all. The evils and injustices of this world must be acknowledged, confronted, and fought against. Yet, how one does this is as important as whether one does it. The admixture of anger taints and vitiates the intended good in ways that ultimately undermine the very outcome itself. Holy patience is active, dynamic, and participatory. But it is also the fruit not of anger, but of love—and the Love of Christ as found in the whole Gospel must be its criteria, not human retribution clothed in the mantle of high-minded morals.

Ideological and passionate movements are tempted to forget or downplay this—and thus plant the seeds of the next form of injustice. The value of a godly patience allows us to move from taking the false role of the One In Charge (visiting all our unexamined and ungodly “stuff” on the Other) to the true roles of servant, steward, instrument. In that is true power, true freedom—and true satisfaction.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Prayer of St. Bede & The Life of Holiness Now

I pray you, good Jesus, that as you have given me the grace to drink in with joy the Word that gives knowledge of you, so in your goodness you will grant me to come at length to yourself, the source of all wisdom, to stand before your face forever.  Amen.

Today is the feast of St. Bede the Venerable (672-735)—monk, priest, homilist, teacher, historian, poet, and the person most responsible for popularizing the “A.D.” system of dating things. He was a phenomenon in his own day, and his mind, character, and achievement still stand out as a remarkable expression of human response to the gifts and call of God. But, there is something else I am thinking about on his feast today: his yearning for communion with God.

In his own writings, St. Bede understood himself as a preacher, a teacher, a writer…but most of all as a monk. For him, this meant a great deal of time spent in liturgical prayer, study, and contemplative silence. This, I believe, is the key to opening the door of his spectacular achievement as a disciple of Our Lord and Master—and its value for one so much less gifted who lives today.

Monasticism, as my spiritual director (an anchoress) likes to say, is “Christianity lived to the hilt.” In a sense, monasticism is like the edge of the ploughshare, the part that digs into the soil and opens it up, exposing the truth of what is there—and taking the rocks and other obstructions head-on. It is a raw and honest form of following Jesus. It embraces the challenge of faithfulness in this world, always going back to basic principles.

It may also be likened to a spiritual version of an experimental research station, where cutting-edge study on the matters of the soul and the human spirit occurs. In such a community, the thirst for knowledge must be deep in order to sustain the effort, the struggle, and the privations any focused and determined study requires.

In St. Bede’s day, Benedictine monasticism was a new and highly sophisticated phenomenon in northern England. The monasteries at Monkswearmouth and Jarrow were rather like space colonies, what with their ongoing connections to Rome so many miles away, their use of then high-tech skills such as glass-making, mural-painting, book-making, writing, and studies in apparently non-productive things like orthography, horology, mathematics, and history. Why were these men all so focused on things having no immediate “payoff?” In a time when sheer survival was hard, and where each day was a struggle with starvation, warfare, disease, why spend all of one’s life in such pursuits?

The Prayer of St. Bede gives us an answer. This prayer tells us that for Bede and his less-famous and less-brilliant brothers, the desire to “stand before God’s face forever” was the supreme desire, the highest good. Thus, they ordered their lives according to this ultimate desire. Each day, each hour was connected to the expectation that a life lived rightly here in this world would lead to an eternity of communion with God, where the learning, love, and increase in sacred knowledge would never end.

For the brothers at Jarrow and other monasteries, the call to know God deeply and then share the fruits of that knowledge with the world around the monastery resulted in the foundation of a society where the Gospel was brought to bear on daily life, justice enacted, mercy shown, and beauty experienced. This simple desire for communion with God the Holy and Undivided Trinity fueled a revolution transforming the north of England from fringe territory in the post-Roman world to a center of world learning and the practice of the Gospel.

For us who commemorate this great saint today, the question remains: What is our ultimate desire? If we know that, we will know how to order our lives.

Our own era presents us much the same challenge as Bede’s very different world did for him. As in his day, we are urged to focus on immediate gratification, practical accomplishments, and measurable achievements. Yet Christians must always reject the false reasoning that living in the world must mean worldliness, with its fixation on wealth, power, sex, youth, and control. Rather, we are people of communion: with God, with neighbor, with all of Creation—and with the redeemed self even now coming into being through this relationship of love and knowledge. It is this communion, not individualism or competitive isolation that we seek. And this colors all our doings, all our days.

As a former priest of a mission dedicated to St. Bede, I hold him in particular reverence. His witness is not remote or obscure to me. His gentleness in an aggressive and bitter time is an inspiration. His commitment to daily prayer, study, and silence is a powerful encouragement to do the same in my own day. His placing communion with God above even the use of his own great capabilities awes me—and charms me. I, too, want that communion. I, too, have been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit in baptism, the call by God to follow Christ’s example, the tools of the catholic faith, the sacraments, the holy scriptures, the witness of the saints, the life of prayer…all these things are mine as they were his.

My responsibility is to recommit, as he did, every day to the task. By saying his prayer, I taste once more his own thirst, and am recalled to take up the burdens—and the blessings—of a life founded on communion, offering it for whatever redemptive good our loving God may have for it…if only I, too, may join the saints in drinking in the joy that comes by standing before God’s face, forever.

Holy Bede, pray for us.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

St. Augustine on the Ascension

We have come to this great Holy Day, the 40th Day of Easter. As we prepare for tomorrow's solemn Eucharist and Confirmation service, let us hear some words from that great preacher and teacher, the Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa: Augustine.

St. Augustine here teaches us that as disciples of Christ and members of His Body the Church, we may share in Christ’s communion with the Father through a union of wills. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to the Church by Christ, and transmitted to each believer in Holy Baptism, we are in Christ, and He in us. Just as Christ never left heaven in order to be Incarnate (for heaven is not so much a “place” as a condition of being in complete conformity to the will of God), so by living “in Christ” and doing His will, we will forever be in His peace, able to know and share his love. This is part of the glorious message of Ascension Day.

+  +  +

“No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven.”

            Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
            Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
            Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
            He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
            These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.

            Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.