Sunday, 12 July 2020

Week 15 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 64; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23

The good soil on which the seed of God's Word falls must have three characteristics. It must have the capacity to hear the Word of God. It must have the capacity to understand the Word of God. And it must have the capacity to put the Word of God into practice. The earlier kinds of soil on which the seed might fall - by the wayside, on rocks, among thorns - all lack one or more of these characteristics and so the seed cannot take root, grow strong and bear fruit, in any of them.

It means there are three critical moments for the life of faith. When we reflect on the well-being of our faith - how strong, how healthy, is my faith? - it is useful to give attention to each of these moments.

Firstly the Word of God must be heard. So what are the difficulties, internal and external, that get in the way of hearing the Word of God? How can we hope to hear a Word from God if we do not put ourselves in the way of receiving such a Word?  Perhaps we rarely go to Church and rarely read the Bible. But life itself often conspires to wake us up, to bring us back to reality, and to get us thinking about it all again.

Our reflections will show that there are many things, very practical things, which we can do if we want to hear better the Word which God wants to speak to us. We need to dedicate time and space in order to be available to God. We need to be in places where we can hear or read the Bible. We need to clear our lives of distractions that will interfere with clear reception of the Word. We need to put to one side for the moment doubts and hesitations that might arise in our hearts and minds, undermining our confidence in what we are trying to do. All too often such doubts succeed in preventing us entering into the necessary kind of silence in which we can listen out for what God wants to say to us.

It can seem a bit spooky to say 'listen out for what God wants to say to you'. How can a human person actually hear the voice of God? It means reading the Bible or listening to it being read. It means attending liturgies where the scriptures are proclaimed and explained. It means attending to the ruminations in our hearts and minds to see what is on my mind? what is weighing on my heart? Such things might be distractions, getting in the way, but more often than not they are telling us 'where we are' and what it is we would like to speak to God about. Perhaps he wishes to speak with us about those things, or perhaps he wants to draw our attention to something we are forgetting.

Secondly the Word of God must be understood. Some of the less favourable soil succeeds in hearing the Word but cannot make the move to understanding it. This requires study and prayer. We must make some effort to understand the nature of the Bible, the different kinds of texts it includes, the ways in which the different books relate to each other historically and in regard to what they teach. We must put ourselves in the way of hearing people speak about it, see what the Church's tradition says about it, reflect on some representations of Biblical characters and events in art or in music.

The internet now offers countless commentaries on the Bible, many of them spoken, many of them written. Go surfing and see what you find. If there is a text you find difficult to understand put it in a Google search and see what comes up. Of course there will be a variety of interpretations, and not all interpreters speak with the same authority. But it is part of the richness of the Word of God that it evokes such diverse echoes in the minds and lives of so many people.

Don't be afraid to add your own interpretation, asking God's Holy Spirit to guide and inspire you. After all we are thinking now about what it is God might want to say to you in his Word. Be attentive also to what is happening in the world around you, in your own life and relationships and activities, as well as to what is going on in the world at large. God speaks to us also through things and events and people, often in combination with the Biblical texts we are thinking about at any particular moment.

Thirdly the Word of God must bear fruit. In his letter Saint James says we are to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. In saying this he is simply repeating the teaching of Jesus, that the one who builds his house on rock is the one who not only hears (and perhaps also understands) the Word but who puts it into practice.

Just as we must put to one side voices and distractions that would undermine our confidence in trying to hear the Word or in trying to understand the Word, we must do the same when those voices and distractions try to undermine our confidence in living out what the Word asks of us. A voice might tell us that we are hypocrites or pretentious, that we are looking for notice or acting out of pride, that is simply another form of egoism or of imposing ourselves on others. The demons are very inventive in the ways in which they try to upset us. But God is infinitely creative even if to ourselves we feel we are 'without form and empty'.

Just as the sower will presumably have to persevere through clouds of insects, sweat, challenging terrain and other physical distractions, so we need to persevere through these three stages in the life of faith: hearing, understanding, bearing fruit. We will discover quickly also that it is not a straight line, this journey of faith. Sometimes we are putting the Word into practice without fully understanding it or when, for some reason, we have become hard of hearing. Or we may be puzzled and perplexed by a Word, not yet understanding how it is a Word of God to me. But very often it is in doing the Word that understanding finally comes.

In the life of faith it is always the season for sowing, always the season for letting the crop mature, always the season for reaping the harvest. Let us give ourselves to its demands once again, listening in prayer and attentiveness, seeking to understand through study and reflection, putting it into practice in mercy and charity. By God's grace each one will bear even richer fruit, thirty or sixty or even a hundredfold.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Saint Benedict - 11 July

Some notes on the life of Saint Benedict and on his Rule

Life of St Benedict

Benedict of Nursia (c.480-547) is often called the ‘Father of Western Monasticism’, even simply the ‘Father of Monks’. We owe our knowledge of his life particularly to the biography of him written by Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540-604). As a student in Rome, Benedict became disgusted and disillusioned with how his contemporaries were living. He decided to abandon everything, his studies, his home and his inheritance, in favour of a life devoted to God. He went to Subiaco, in the mountains north of Rome, and lived in a cave there. His fame grew, however, and with it the number of people coming to be near him and to learn from him. He had to follow the stages of the spiritual life as we see them in the life of Antony and his companions in the desert: ascetic purgation, spiritual warfare, spiritual fatherhood.

Finally a group of monks asked Benedict to be their abbot. He agreed but his experience resembled that of Pachomius: the first group found it too difficult to remain under his authority – Benedict was taking the task more seriously than they had anticipated. But eventually groups of monks persevered under the guidance and authority of Benedict and he was able to establish a number of monasteries, each with its own abbot. Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, also dedicated herself to the monastic life and the two were buried together at the great monastery of Monte Cassino.

Gregory tells us that Benedict also composed a rule for monks. This Rule of Saint Benedict became the most popular of the monastic rules in the West. It replaced all other rules – those of Basil, Augustine, Cassian, and Columban – and is an essential source for understanding not only monastic life but the whole of medieval Christian civilization. From its opening sentences Benedict’s Rule sets the theme of obedience as the way to progress in the spiritual life:

Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you, whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true king, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue).

Themes from the Rule of Saint Benedict

Being with Christ – the purpose of the monastic life is to bring to completion in the lives of those called to be monks the life of faith that began when they were baptised. The monk strives to be a Christian, following Christ as closely as possible, and the rule and disciplines of the monastic way of life are intended to guide him towards this goal. The monastery is then a ‘school of God’s service’ in which, Benedict hopes, there is nothing harsh or oppressive.

The Abbot – in Benedictine monasticism the Abbot (from Abba, ‘father’) has a key role. This continues the tradition of the desert ‘fathers’, those experienced monks who were in a position to guide others in asceticism and prayer. The Abbot represents Christ for the monks and their willingness to obey him is the concrete sign of their desire to remain close to Christ. The Abbot is accountable to God not only for his own life but also for those of his ‘subjects’: his primary responsibility is the spiritual formation and growth of the monks committed to his care. The Abbot also oversees the temporal, material needs and activities of the monastery. Many of the monasteries were to become powerful social, cultural, economic and political institutions and some Abbots became powerful figures in Church and society. This sometimes led to their function as spiritual fathers being taken on by spiritual directors and confessors while the Abbot was occupied completely with the temporal and material life of the monastery.

Stability – Benedict is contemptuous of wandering monks, ‘gyrovagues’, who cannot observe the stability that he believed a good monk ought to have. The stability of the monks was a crucial part of their way of life and helped to make the monasteries dependable and reliable places of refuge, learning, comfort, and encouragement for countless others who came to have contact with them. In the 13th century the orders of mendicant friars represented a significant departure from monastic tradition since for them mobility rather than stability was a virtue: they were to be free and ready to move in the service of preaching the gospel. We see how different forms of religious life serve different spiritual and pastoral needs of individuals and of the Church as a whole.

Lectio Divina – recent years have seen a significant revival of the monastic practice of lectio divina, a prayerful meditation on the Scriptures which does not neglect a critical and scholarly understanding of them but which is keen to go further, uncovering and appreciating the spiritual and theological riches of the Scriptures for speaking to the needs of individuals and communities in the present moment. This way of prayerfully reading and meditating on Scripture was a key tool of monastic spirituality, the monks dedicating time each day to prayer (oratio) and reading (lectio), with a view to meditation (meditatio) and contemplation (contemplatio).

Opus Dei – the hours of prayer already observed in Judaism became part of Christian spiritual and liturgical practice from the beginning as we can see in the Acts of the Apostles. The injunction of Saint Paul that Christians ought to ‘pray without ceasing’ was believed to be fulfilled in the practice of praying at all the crucial moments of the day, its cardinal points: morning, evening and night, during the night and at dawn, and at the key hours of 9.00am, noon and 3.00pm. A whole day was sanctified if the key hours of the day became hours of prayer. The main content of this prayer – again following Jewish precedent, the example of Jesus, and the practice of the Apostles – was the Psalms. The whole range of human need and experience in relation to God is expressed in the Psalms – thanksgiving, adoration, lament, repentance, petition, anger, sadness, joy, and so on. For Christians, the Psalms can all be placed on the lips of Christ just as they can be placed on the lips of the Church. This continues to be an essential part of the Church’s spiritual life, the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office, recited by all priests, deacons and religious, and often celebrated communally in religious and parish communities.

Humility – Benedict gives great importance to the virtue of humility (see chapter seven of the Rule). For many this was the Christian ‘cardinal virtue’, an attitude or disposition encouraged by the example and teaching of Jesus, that was not to be found among the pagan virtues. Of course it can be distorted and lead to strange forms of self-hatred and neglect but properly understood humility is simply an acceptance of the truth about ourselves and about our situation. Someone once said that the humble person compares himself only with God and thereby knows his own nothingness and his own greatness. Comparing ourselves with other people is always a bad idea leading either to pride, because we judge ourselves superior to them, or to depression, because we judge ourselves inferior to them. The truth about us is seen in the light of Christ, his holiness compared with our sinfulness, his call to us to share the glory that the Father has given him. The term ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word humus, meaning ‘ground’ or ‘earth’. Rather than allowing ourselves to be treated like dirt (in the way of Uriah Heep’s mock humility, for example) it means allowing ourselves to be ‘ploughed back’ into the field of God’s harvesting, to be sown once again by the wise Husbandman, the gardener of our souls, who will do great things for those who trust Him and entrust themselves completely to Him. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux later wrote a commentary on Saint Benedict’s twelve steps of humility. Saint Thomas Aquinas defines humility as truth, a calm and honest acceptance of the truth about ourselves, and he warned against a vice that he called ‘pusillanimity’, what we might term ‘humility gone mad’.

Obedience – it is obedience rather than humility that is the key monastic virtue for Saint Benedict. This is because obedience is the key virtue of Our Lord, his attitude and disposition towards his Father, obedience to the Father’s will originating in love and ensuring the salvation of the world. We see this obedience operating in Christ’s agony in the garden where he expresses his desire that the cup should pass him by, but he expresses at the same time his love for the Father and his acceptance of the Father’s will: ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will’ (Mark 14:36). In Christ are fulfilled the words of Psalm 40, of a servant who honours God not through animal sacrifices but through his obedience and the offering of himself: ‘When Christ came into the world he said, ‘sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me … lo I have come to do your will, O God’ … and by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all’ (Hebrews 10:5-10). He learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8) and through that obedience the world is saved as Saint Paul teaches: ‘for as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5:19). Jesus tells us this about himself in the Gospel of John: ‘he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him’ (8:29). To share the life of Christ and to participate in his relationship with the Father as adopted sons and daughters of God requires that we enter into Christ’s obedience to the Father, his trust in the Father’s word and his entrusting of himself completely to the Father’s will. This is what the Christian life is about: baptism brings us into the obedience of faith as we receive light and love from the Father through Christ. The monastic and other forms of religious life in the Church remind all Christians of this fundamental attitude and disposition of anyone who seeks to be a follower of Christ.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Week 14 Friday (Year 2)

Readings: Hosea 14:2-10; Ps 50/51; Matthew 10:16-23

There is a puzzle set up by the fact that we hear these two readings together. Hosea tells us to prepare words to say and return to the Lord. In the gospel reading Jesus tells us not to worry about how or what we should say. Obviously the contexts are different. We can fruitfully reflect on this puzzle, I think, taking that well known saying about Saint Dominic, that he spend his time speaking either to God or of God.

These are two ways of serving the Word of God, in prayer and in preaching. The fundamental one is prayer and the other comes after. Often we are tempted to do the opposite. Even this morning, I gave more energy to worrying about what I was to say in this homily than I did to trying to find words with which to pray to God. Presumably if I had spend more time in prayer the homily would have a different character, a depth or flavour that comes from something informed by prayer. We know it when we taste it. We know that our preaching becomes superficial, a bit ritualistic, where it is not originating in the freshness of prayer. And  prayer is then instrumentalised: I do it when I'm stuck, when I'm at a loss for words, rather than for its own sake.

So we must give time and energy in the first place to trying to find words with which to pray. And in the second place, and on the basis of our prayer, we need not worry about what we are to say or how we are to say it when it comes to speaking to people. In prayer we are with the Word, reflecting on Him, spending time with Him, meditating on the scriptures, seeking to be in the intimacy of that encounter with the Word of God. Having become familiar with Him we can move more easily in the affairs of the world, taking Him with us in our hearts.

But in prayer we also learn about another puzzle that emerges from today's readings. Why is it that the mission of the apostles that we heard about yesterday, a mission to carry the word of peace and grace, a message of compassion and healing, meets such fierce opposition? Why the hatred, the envy, the persecution provoked by the preaching of this good news which Jesus speaks about in today's gospel?

Spending time with the Word of God in prayer gives us an insight into this too. In prayer we realise, in relation to our own lives first of all, that the Word is indeed like a two edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). One edge is compassion and mercy and tenderness. The other edge is justice and coherence and truth. We cannot swallow one but not the other.

Only when we become familiar with the Word, and with both sides of its blade, will be be serene in the task of bringing the Word to the world, knowing that one side of God's Word will be very welcome and the other will be rejected, sometimes violently. Our task is to work hard to find words for prayer and to trust in God when it comes to witness and preaching. We learn everything in prayer, Saint Catherine of Siena teaches, the comfort of God's love and grace as well as the fierce clarity of God's holiness and truth.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Week 14 Thursday (Year 2)

Readings: Hosea 11:1-4, 8e-9; Psalm 80; Matthew 10:7-15

Is there anything original in the teaching of Jesus? The question arises from today's readings. All this week we have been reading the prophet Hosea, prophet of the divine hesed. At the heart of the prophecy is a celebration of God's grace, mercy, compassion, and tenderness. God loves his people, wants to be loved by them, and wants them to share the same love with each other. Today's reading includes what may be the most tender image of God in the Bible: like a father teaching his infant to walk, God reaches down to support Israel, guiding and protecting her with the reins of love. The picture is of the harness used sometimes to support infants as they learn how to walk: this is how solicitous God is with Israel, how delicate and tender.

The gospel reading includes instructions for what the apostles are to lay aside as they set out on their mission. This list of instructions is found also in the Talmud, a collection of Jewish traditions. On entering the Temple, the Jewish man was to leave aside his belt and shoes, his bag and money. Jesus quotes this list, applying it now not to the Jew entering the Temple but to the apostles setting out on their mission.

So what is new with Jesus? Well we can say firstly that he gives us a name for the tender Father, 'Abba'. And he teaches us a prayer, gives us his own words with which to pray to this Father.

We can say also that Jesus makes incarnate - realises - the pictures and images, the promises and anticipations, that we find in the Old Testament. They could remain simply beautiful images and aspirations, but the incarnation of the Word of God, the coming among us of the only Son from the Father means they are real. In Jesus the divine hesed becomes flesh. He is full of grace and truth, St John tells us, full of hesed and emet, the divine faithfulness. These are not simply nice ideas but flesh and blood reality. In Jesus the Father is present among us, we see the face of the hidden Father.

The instructions Jesus quotes to his disciples are all about grace. The Jew entering the Temple leaves everything to one side to show that the relationship with God is not an ordinary business or commercial one, not a relationship like the others we establish in human affairs. The complete trust expressed, the complete dependence on God's goodness, makes it clear that this is a relationship of grace. Freely you have received, freely give, Jesus says to them. It is all about grace.

What Jesus does with this list of instructions about entering the Temple is worthy of long meditation. He teaches us that the whole world is a holy place. Or at least that wherever there are people needing the Word of compassion and grace, there is the divine presence. Wherever the Word of Grace is needed and preached, there is God. Wherever there are people living in faith, hope and love, once again God is there. It is not just in certain places or in certain buildings that God is to be found but wherever grace is at work. True worshippers worship in spirit and truth, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman.

Finally we can say that Jesus in his turn teaches us how to walk. He teaches us the way along which we are to walk. He shares with his disciples his own teaching and saving work. He clearly wants us to grow up, to be the mature and adult children of God, walking the way with Him and participating in His work. We are called to share responsibility in the family of God to which we belong.

A closing thought, requiring another homily. We know too that the way on which Jesus teaches us to walk leads to the cross. Now there is another biblical image, the final revelation, of the divine hesed. Is it beautiful or is it ugly? What is the mystery that explains this particular realisation of the tender love of God for humanity?

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Week 14 Wednesday (Year 2)

Readings: Hosea 10:1-3, 7-8, 12; Psalm 105; Matthew 10:1-7

The term 'humility' is connected with humus, meaning the ground or the earth. To be humble could then be taken to mean lowering oneself, perhaps considering oneself as of no particular value, perhaps even allowing oneself to be walked on ... it can get extreme and we move towards the vice of pusillanimity which one colleague described colourfully as 'humility gone mad'.

A better way to take this connection with humus, the ground or earth, is to link it with something like the message of Hosea in the first reading today: 'break up for yourselves a new field'. It means be prepared to start all over again. It means be prepared to allow the Lord to plough up your life, to turn things over, to reach down into the depths of your heart and soul in order to freshen things up.

Pride is solid, isn't it, strong and resistant, whereas humility is soft and docile, it is open to learning new things and to being available in new ways. The new field that is broken up by the plough has the potential to bear much fruit. In a similar way the humble man or woman has the potential to bear much fruit. In fact the beatitude that brings us closest to humility, 'blessed are the meek', is the one that brings the reward of inheriting the earth.

In the gospel reading Jesus sends the apostles back to the beginning, to the heart of Israel. For the moment forget about pagan territory and Samaritan territory, he says. There is a need to go back to that old field, Israel, and to make it new again, to plough it up, freshen it up, and get it ready for a new era of fruitfulness.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. If we are to enter into that kingdom, to live its life, then we must become like little children. That means being fresh and open, being keen and eager to learn again the lessons of life. To be humble is to be like that, ready and willing that the Lord should once again shake up my life, dig deeply into the soil of it, break the crust of pride that threatens to choke it, and liberate the potential for love and life and joy which lies hidden within it. Unclean spirits will be driven out and every disease and illness of soul will be cured. A new world begins with the turning of the sod, with the sowing of new seed, with allowing the earth to breathe. And the door that opens us to such an experience is called humility.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Week 14 Tuesday (Year 2)

Readings: Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13; Matthew 9:32-38

In his commentary on this passage of Matthew's gospel, St Thomas Aquinas says that in how he acts here Jesus 'gives an example for preachers'. It is not the only place where he uses this phrase, understanding the public ministry of Jesus as the apostolic school, the place in which Jesus is teaching the apostles what is expected of them.

Thomas picks out three points in this education of preachers. Jesus goes around the towns and villages. Preachers must be ready to move, Thomas says, not staying always in one place. We can think of place geographically, of course, but in other ways also. The preacher must be willing to work in different situations and contexts, with different kinds of people responding to different needs and challenges. There must be an availability in the preacher, a willingness to move to where needs are greatest.

Secondly, Jesus preaches and teaches and cures as he goes from place to place. The preacher must be ready not just to talk but also to act. Jesus is a healer as well as a teacher. The one who preaches but does not practise will realise (please God) that his words are empty, blowing in the wind. Compassion is the root of preaching as we are also taught in this passage and compassion moves people not just to preach and to teach but also to alleviate suffering in other ways, to correct injustice, to undertake any of the works of mercy.

Thirdly, Thomas makes the point that some preachers have the task of preparing the harvest and others (it seems to be implied by him) the task of reaping it. Perhaps he is influenced by how St Paul was to speak later about Christian preachers, that some sow, some water, and some reap the harvest. How has the harvest become 'full'? Thomas understands it in the sense of mature or ripe and feels that some work of preaching and teaching must already have taken place to bring it to this point.

All of this in the context of the cure of a dumb man. It is a reminder to the preacher that it is God who gives not just words, the capacity for speech, but effective words, words that achieve their purpose. It is God who takes away our dumbness, the limitations of our preaching that come from sinfulness and tiredness and whatever other source. Wherever the words we speak become for another person words that carry the Word, it is the work of the Spirit moving their minds to see what is true and their hearts to embrace what is good. But the preacher has an essential, and privileged, role in assisting this process of encounter with God's compassionate Word.

Pope Francis, in his exhortation on The Joy of the Gospel, reminds us that all baptised Christians are, by virtue of their baptism, missionary disciples.  All must be ready to bear witness to Christ, in ways appropriate to each one's vocation, through availability, through speaking, through action.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Week 14 Monday (Year 2)

Readings: Hosea 2:16, 17-18, 21-22; Ps 144/145; Matthew 9:18-26

'Jesus rose and followed him'. We are more used to this phrase being used about people who follow Jesus: they take up their beds and follow him, they leave their nets and follow him, they leave their tax office and follow him. But here we are told that Jesus gets up and follows the man whose daughter has died. Jesus too is obedient, he hears a call and he responds to it.

The first reading, a well known and very beautiful passage from Hosea, teaches us about the kind of relationship God wants to have with His people. It is not to be that of master and slave in which one kind of obedience will be found but that of bridegroom and bride in which another kind of obedience will be found. The obedience in marriage is mutual, between equals, arising from the committed love of bride and groom. Love is the source of this obedience and so it is an obedience that is completely free. This is how God wants His people to be relating to Him. But it also binds God to a comparable obedience for the covenant is always two sided.

The love of Christ compels us, St Paul says in 2 Corinthians. There is a love compelling God also. Or better the love that God is compels Him. We learn from Jesus, God-with-us, that He too is listening out for human need, for the places and people who need compassion and help. His obedience is to turn towards those people and those places, to respond to the call of their poverty and distress, to get up and seek them out.

It is the ideal of obedience for which we strive, an obedience that arises simply and solely from love and that gets all its meaning from the love from which it flows. Of course there are other loves, other desires, jostling together in us but we can pray that this love, for Christ and his way, will become more and more the fundamental and dominant love of our lives, the one that obliges us to the obedience of love, the utterly free obedience which, Jesus shows us, God is.