The Root of War is Fear

Except for an endnote and disclaimer, I offer without commentary these thoughts on war written in 1961 by Thomas Merton.

“At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear humans have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill they, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God. “ [112]

“When the whole word is in moral confusion, when no one knows any longer what to think, and when, in fact, everybody is running away from the responsibility of thinking, when humans[i] make rational thought about moral issues absurd by exiling themselves entirely from realities into the realm of fictions, and (more…)

Fear Not the Broken Heart

detail-treasured-heart-black-bordershellypenko

Image: “Treasured Heart” by Shelly Penko

While we are on the topic of “rending” our hearts this Lent, (or “rend+er-ing” or “sur+rend+er-ing” it, or the many beautiful words we can use to describe those gestures which make us more vulnerable to God’s grace, or open to receive it), I thought once again[1] to share Katherine Mahon’s wonderful essay, Rend Your Hearts: How to Break Your Heart This Lent, which she published on Ash Wednesday 2016 on the always enriching Daily Theology website.

Being a visual person, I tend to draw images, metaphors, analogies—anything that sparks a deeper understanding from whatever it is that I seek to know better.   (more…)

Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us: The Body and Blood of Christ

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)

Many years ago, in another city, I participated in my parish’s bread baking ministry. This was a group of people who took turns making the large loaves of communion bread that the priest elevated during the consecration.

Many bakers, me included, consider bread-making to be a spiritual practice, but the ritual behind preparing this unleavened, soon-to-be-consecrated bread elevated the task of following a simple recipe of a few ingredients to the level of contributing an essential element to the liturgy.

I baked my bread in silence. No phone. No music. No distractions. I lit a candle and said a prayer of gratitude for the work I was about to begin. As I measured and sifted the flour and salt together, I reminded myself that this was the way bread had been made for thousands of years. Slowly adding the water, oil, and honey, I worked the dough with my fingers until I could gather and turn it out on a kneading board. I handled the dough gently, almost caressingly, and divided it into six pieces, one for each of the weekend’s liturgies. I flattened each piece to the exact thickness and diameter specified by the recipe and carefully scored the surface with a knife before baking so the celebrant could break it quickly into pieces for distribution with communion.

The homemade, whole wheat, unleavened bread was chewy and delicious, and no doubt those who received it in its consecrated form savored it, but the pieces from one loaf could not feed the entire assembly, so it was supplemented with enough communion hosts to serve everyone.

Confession time. If you haven’t already picked up on it, I experienced a bit of self-congratulatory, church lady pride from my bread-baking experience. And during the consecration as I watched the bread that I made with my own hands, in my own kitchen, being elevated, well, sigh, wasn’t I so blessed? What beautiful and delicious bread I baked, and how perfectly round it was, how perfectly scored and easily torn it was! How I loved to see the secret smiles on my young daughters’ faces as they chewed my bread instead of the standard issue wafer.

Egads! This is horrifying. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hang my head in shame. Everything about this confession is appalling. Not only did my pride obstruct my reception of the Eucharist, it interfered with my knowledge of God’s will for me.

Don’t misunderstand. Bread baking ministries are wonderful. My fault is that I became attached to the act of baking bread, and to the bread itself because I lost sight of what I was doing, and why. What began as way to serve God through the liturgy became the means of my own self-elevation. I’m sure we can all think of other ministries, liturgical or not, which run the same risk. We must always be careful.

I’ve been researching the topic of detachment and am discovering how even virtuous acts born of good and holy intentions (such as baking the bread used for the Eucharist) can, if we are not attentive, become material attachments that push their way between us and God. Thomas Merton, in his classic book, New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else.”[1]

Merton names the very things people do in order to draw closer to God. In our efforts to detach from worldly things like power and money and prestige for example, Merton says we cling instead to the means of being virtuous and holy. Prayer, fasting, devotional practices, penance, holy books, religious orthodoxy and the like often usurp the priority of seeking and doing God’s will.

We risk being blinded by our zeal, thinking God is pleased by our endless busyness. Merton says even spiritual goals like seeking a sense of God’s presence are attachments that get in the way of God’s pure communion with us.

Merton’s words recall the story of the rich young man from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31, who approached Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. A sincere man who loved God, who did the right things and was obedient to the laws and observed the rituals of his faith, he turned away when he learned the cost of heavenly treasure was his belongings, his identity and social status—everything he had. As the disappointed man walked away Jesus said “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Can you picture the faces of the disciples, who literally gave up everything to follow Jesus, when they heard these words? We also wonder “Then who can be saved?”

The ability to detach from our will to listen for God’s will is a herculean but essential practice if the words “thy will be done” are to have any meaning. It seems that our well-intentioned activities run the risk of becoming a kind of spiritual filibuster intended to hold off God’s will. It’s like we are saying, “Thanks for everything, but we’ll take it from here. Aren’t we wonderfully made?”

According to Merton, what God asks of us is to be quiet and allow the “secret work” that has begun in our souls to take place. Quiet means learning to silence our minds and pay attention. It also means quelling our need to take charge, to win, to be number one.

Which begs the question: What are we supposed to do?

I think part of the answer can be found in Luke’s account of the feeding of the multitudes, which we will hear proclaimed this weekend as we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The story picks up after the newly commissioned apostles returned from their mission of “proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing.” [LK 9:2]. Jesus tried to retreat with them to a remote city where they could regroup but his presence attracted an enormous and hungry crowd. (Remember, in the days of Jesus hunger was a given; everyone was always hungry.)

We know the details of this story: Jesus welcomed the crowd and told them about the kingdom of God. The disciples saw both the lateness of the day and the crowd’s rising hunger and asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds so everyone could find food,  but Jesus’ challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. So Jesus organized the crowd into manageable groups of fifty, blessed the spare meal and set it before them. Everyone ate, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

If we are attentive we will remember that in the kingdom of God there is no hunger or thirst. Yes, this was a miracle. Through the alleviation of their hunger, the crowd was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Still, some of us have to demythologize biblical miracles in order to settle on a logical human explanation. We miss the point when we insist there is no way that Jesus could have multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. We are positive it had to have been the people themselves who out of embarrassment or forgotten generosity, or love, opened their sacks and shared their food with one another.

It was Jesus who fed and who continues to feed the crowds, but that’s not to say the crowd also didn’t share their food with one another. It was love that fed the multitudes.

If anything this affirms our faith in the goodness of humankind and restores hope for the world. The theory that humans are inherently selfish is a lie. People want to give of themselves and help others in meaningful ways, such as sharing our food with those who have none. But the point Merton makes about attachments is important. How many of our works are motivated by the pure intention of drawing closer to God? Do we seek the face of God in the hungry? The poor? The refugees? How about our enemies? Does it matter? It does if we want to share the Love that feeds the world.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesu, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see. [2]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint. New York, New Directions, 2007.  205.

[2] Excerpt from the Lauda Sion sequence which is sung or proclaimed at the liturgies celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Though I am lost, I will not fear.

Holy Week (C)

A reflection for anxious wanderers at the start of Holy Week.

Instead of writing about one or more of the readings for Palm Sunday I want to share this prayer from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, a book on the solitary life and the need for quiet reflection. You may already be familiar with the prayer and know Merton’s words are a spiritual balm for a wounded world. Apply liberally, and as often as needed.

 “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[1]

We live in distressing times. It is hard to see the road ahead when dangerous and hateful talk is celebrated by so many and the use of violence so handily defeats dialogue. This is not Godly. None of this is pleasing to God. These are not the actions of people who desire to follow God’s will, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Yet our current chaos is nothing new. These days repeat like a needle stuck in a gouge on the album of human dysfunction. And the reason, Merton concludes, is because we can’t hear.

In the preface to this book Merton writes:

“No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to (people) about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in (a person’s) heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”[2]

And here we have the challenge of our faith and the meaning behind our Lenten experience: To live in a way that is a true expression of our love for God and for our neighbor requires the ability to listen, as Jesus listened. We know that this is a way which is wrought with peril; it requires an open and vulnerable heart, or more accurately, as writer Katharine Mahon so beautifully put it, a “broken heart made whole by God for the sake of loving the world”[3]. We do this willingly and fearlessly because we trust that God will never leave us to face our perils alone.

Blessings to you and your loved ones as you enter Holy Week.

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[1] Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1956. 79.

[2] Merton. xiii.

[3] Katharine Mahon. “Rend Your Hearts: How to Break your Heart this Lent” Daily Theology, February 10, 2016. http://dailytheology.org/2016/02/10/rend-your-hearts-how-to-break-your-heart-this-lent/ (accessed March 19, 2016).

A perfect and generous love

Friday of the Third Week of Lent (C)

My heartfelt thanks go to Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, blogger at There Will Be Bread, for inviting me to write the following reflection for her readers, and for the community of faith at St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, NY.  This post and a wealth of deep spirituality and theological pondering, evidence of Fran’s  perfect and generous love, can be found here, on There will Be Bread. I encourage you to visit.

It happens every year about this time, give or take a couple of weeks. Of course, I am talking about the midpoint of Lent, but I’m also talking about the change of seasons. Lent, like spring, is a time of conversion, of reawakening, of planting new seeds, of grace-filled turnings, returnings, and reconciliations.

Around the fourth week of our Lenten practice, new spiritual growth emerges like tender buds urged on by shortened nights. We carefully push back the winter mulch and beckon the sun’s warming rays.

This morning as I walked my dog, a neighbor who I pass every day remarked: “you look happy this morning.” He was right; I know I had joy written all over my face. The birds seemed to chant, Come out! Come out! Squirrels giddily complied, springing crazily from tree to tree, dropping to the ground, and diving in and out of unraked leaves. I spied a family of eight wild turkeys jauntily making their way up a neighbor’s drive. Upon my return I searched the back of my garden for surprises, something I do every morning now. Two days ago I noticed a few snowdrops pushing through the mulch; today I saw hundreds waving their happy little heads in the breeze.

On days like this, when love fills me to the top, I recall the words of Thomas Merton:

“If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of (God’s) life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest.” [1]

Like Merton, I am aware (or, at least, I always try to be aware) that it is God’s love that I feel when the sun warms my skin, and it is through God’s love that I hear the chirping of springtime birds, and it is God’s love that motivates and urges and surprises me year after year with the arrival of brave little flowers and tender buds.

Today’s first reading bursts with lush and verdant imagery. The Prophet Hosea’s final exhortation to the Israelites to repent and return to the Lord is given with an expectation of the Lord’s joyful response. Of course! Of course, the Lord would respond with a promise of new life!

I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;

He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.

His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.

Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain;

They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
[Hos 14:6-8]

The whole of Sacred Scripture is the story of God’s desire for our homecoming, and the paths we take in life represent our response. Every Lenten practice provides opportunities to assess and course correct so that we might continue to draw closer to accepting God’s invitation. On Ash Wednesday, we heard these words from the prophet Joel, “Return to Me with all your heart.” [Joel 2:12]. Today’s Responsorial Psalm includes an emotional expression of God’s longing for reconciliation. “If only my people would hear me, and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”

What God offers us is so abundant, so rich, so fruitful, so ridiculously good. Why is it so difficult for us to accept it? What is it that causes us to separate ourselves from the Love of God? Today’s gospel helps us answer that question.

One of the Scribes who valued Jesus’ teaching approached him, asking “Which is the first of all the commandments?” [Mk 12:28b]. While Christian awareness of the commandments is limited to ten, there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so this was an important question to ask. Jesus told the Scribe that Love is first: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” [MK 12:30-31].

Love of God and Love of neighbor. This greatest commandment is the summation of all other commandments, and as the Scribe indicated to Jesus, more than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Everything Jesus taught is an expression of this greatest commandment. Yet, the history of the world reveals our consistent inability to obey.

Our fundamental problem and its resolution are one and the same: God’s gift of free will. We have taken the gift but have lost touch with the giver. God urges us to love, yet we use our freedom to ignore God’s will. Again, words of Merton speak to me:

“If these seeds would take root in my liberty, and if (God’s) will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that (God) is, and my harvest would be (God’s) glory and my own joy.” [2]

If my every action is a reflection of my love for God, my response to God’s love will infuse my thoughts and words, my relationships, and the work of my hands. I will become love.

This kind of love means I will use my freedom and hold nothing back; I am to love completely, perfectly, generously, and without pause because the love of God inspires me to do so.

Come out! Come out!

The readings for today can be found here. 

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With just a little over two weeks to go before the Triduum, let’s also express our love of God and neighbor with prayer. Let us pray for those individuals whose Christian journey has just begun; for the elect who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil; for the hungry, the lost, the lonely, the hurt, the disillusioned; for the homecoming of all of our brothers and sisters who have been distanced from our faith communities. And let us love God and neighbor by praying most fervently for those to whom our love seems the most difficult to give.

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[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint edition. New Directions, New York. 2007. p 16-17

[2] Merton, New Seeds. p 17