Monthly Archives: October 2011

Don’t You Think It’s Time?

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  John 2: 1-5.

I absolutely love the story of the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of St. John.  Among other things, I love the apparent reluctance of Jesus to begin his public ministry with this first miracle.  It’s as though Christ hesitated to begin the process of revealing his true nature to the world.  He tells Mary, “My hour has not yet come.”  And within the subtext of the story, we can almost see the Holy Mother nudging Jesus and whispering in his ear, “Don’t you think it’s time?”

I love this story, in part, because I had a mother like that.  Anne Dell Dennis died seven years ago tomorrow, on October 31, 2004.  At her funeral service, the priest remarked  that she died on the Eve of All Saints Day, and her funeral mass was said on All Souls Day.  Anyone who thinks that was a coincidence did not understand my mother’s life very well.

My mother came from a very long line of Irish Catholic women who attended Daily Mass because . . . well, because that’s just what they did.  She and my father did not always see eye to eye (a trait I happened to share with my father).  My mother was a force of nature:  faithful,  obstinate, charitable, and immovable.

At her gravesite, my brother Sean Michael observed that she and my father were like two tectonic plates.  Their collision, while not always fun to watch, generally produced some pretty spectacular results.

One of the most important lessons my mother taught me was that our generosity with God’s children bears directly on our relationship with the Almighty. The authentic Christian life must be lived charitably.  She also taught me that  our faith, our relationship with God, is a terribly important matter.  During my fairly lengthy periods of indifference toward the Church, my mother regularly suggested, “Don’t you think it’s time?”

So, for every mother who has nudged, prodded, cajoled, and even nagged her children into taking their spiritual life a bit more seriously:   Well done, and thanks.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

The Sin of Hopelessness

One of the seven deadly sins recognized by the medieval church was acedia, which gets poorly translated into “sloth.”  The words “despair” or “hopelessness” offer a  much better translation.  I’ve encountered these far too often in my life:  suicide, alcoholism and depression run deep in my family.

It’s important to offer a couple of clarifications at this point.  First, I’m not so much talking about clinical depression here.  (Clinical depression generally arises from a complex miasma of environmental circumstances and chemical imbalances.)   I’m also not talking about the sort of transitory sadness that is an appropriate response to a loss or to tragedy.  I’m talking about that deep, spiritual despair most of us encounter at some point of our lives.  Acedia involves a kind of spiritual resignation: the conclusion that not only can I not do anything about this situation, but also the suspicion that God cannot or will not help either.

It seems cruel to suggest that people like this, who live with genuine pain which they may have had little role in, are somehow in a sinful state.  And that would be true if we view sin as simply doing something forbidden or naughty or wicked.   I think it’s important, however, that we recognize this notion of sin is too narrow and ignores the true nature of sin.  Sin, simply, is separation from God.  And anyone who’s encountered deep spiritual despair knows quickly we can fall into feeling distant from God and God’s help.

In other words, I think we need to re-imagine sin as not just something we’ve done, but as a state in which our souls are in peril.  Sin may or may not involve some act of the will or volitional conduct.  (The question of whether our brothers and sisters had some role or fault in their current state must not be our concern.  That determination lies exclusively within the Almighty’s province.) Regardless of whether it’s volitional, the danger to our souls is just as real, and the danger lies in our separation from the Source of our lives and healing.

To paraphrase Woody Allen very roughly, eighty percent of the Christian life is just showing up.  I sometimes wonder if that’s not an important distinction between Judas Iscariot and St. Peter.  Both betrayed Jesus; both broke trust and listened to their lesser angels.  Judas despaired, and resigned himself to his failure.  Peter, on the other hand, kept showing up.

Jesus said that the devil did “not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  John 8:44.   One of the most powerful lies our Ancient Enemy ever tells us is:  “This will never change.  This will never get better.  Things will always be this way.”  As Christians, hope provides our greatest weapon against the despair and resignation which the world so often pulls us toward.

In an earlier post, we discussed the Parable of the Good Samaritan (  Most of us will never encounter someone lying on the road, beaten almost to death.  We are far more likely to meet a friend, neighbor or co-worker deep in the well of despair or hopelessness.  Sometimes, we may merely let them know that “it gets better.”  Sometimes, we may take them into our prayer lives, our hearts, or simply offer them a cup of coffee.  Sometimes, the situation calls for nothing more than sacred listening, or the ministry of simply being present to the struggle.  Either way, when we act as the hands, the voice and face of Christ, we engage in good and holy work.

Our faith often demands that we muster hope when it seems extraordinarily foolish, that we recognize God’s power to recreate when desperation has overcome us.  Our confidence lies in knowing that our Redeemer lives.  Thus, we pray in the Collect for this week that the living God increase our faith, our charity, and our hope. Like faith and charity, hope is a gift from God: a gift for which we should all pray.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Go And Do Likewise

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii,  gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  Luke 10: 30-37.

In this morning’s readings in the Daily Office, we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It’s an extraordinarily familiar story, although it appears only in the Gospel of St. Luke.  Perhaps we know the story so well that it’s lost some of its impact.  Familiarity, after all, breeds indifference long before it breeds contempt.  So, we may have forgotten just how shocking this story was to the audience in first century Palestine.

Part of what’s been lost to us is the geography.  The story takes place on the long, downhill road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road also known at the time as the “Bloody Pass” or “The Way of Blood.”  The road meanders and the topography provides the perfect environment for an ambush:  a paradise for bandits and robbers.

There’s nothing surprising then about the man being beaten, robbed and left for dead on that road.  Nor would Jesus’ audience have been particularly surprised to hear Jesus tell that the priest and the Levite both passed the man by, in fact they walked by “on the other side” of the road.  (The laws of ritual purification at the time might actually have recommended this practice to devout Jews.)  We aren’t surprised by Jesus’ casting the priests and Levites in the role of the villains:  both Jesus and John the Baptist had been doing that for a while.

But the notion that the Samaritan showed the quality of mercy, the notion of the Samaritan as the hero of the story, that would have astonished and befuddled Jesus’ first century audience.  The Samaritans and the Jews had hated each other for hundreds of years at the time Jesus told this story.  The Samaritans had desecrated the Temple with human bones.  The Jews reciprocated.  According to the Mishna (the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism), “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). So, hearing about a “good Samaritan” would have bewildered Jesus’ audience.  It would be the equivalent of a modern parable about the “good Klansman” or a “good Zeta” (one of the Mexican drug cartels) or the “Good Al-Qaeda fighter.”

Thus, part of Jesus’ message continues the message of the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Luke 6:27-28.  This commandment teaches that there is nothing soft or squishy or indulgent about the Christian life.  It is, as C.S. Lewis observed, “as hard as nails.”  And this teaches one of the many ways that Christianity must remain counter-cultural:  loving our enemies, caring for those who’ve wounded us, will never be a popular position.

I think, however, this parable suggests at least one more critical lesson.  Jesus teaches us about our most common sin, if not our greatest sin: indifference.  Jesus contrasts the compassion which overtook the Samaritan with the indifference of the priest and the Levite.  It’s a sharp criticism directed at the religious leaders of his day, and I’m not so certain it doesn’t apply with equal force today.  Indifference, perhaps even more than hatred, may have the greatest power to separate us from God.

So, I’m wondering, who did I not notice?  Who did I walk to the other side of the road to avoid?  As Bruce Cockburn wrote, “Lord, spit on our eyes so that we can see.”

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

If You Want To Hear God Laugh ….

“What the soul has to do in the time of quiet is only to be gentle and make no noise … Let the will quietly and prudently understand that one does not deal successfully with God by any efforts of one’s own.”  —Teresa of Avila

I ran across this bit of wisdom in today’s reading in the wonderful Celtic Book of Daily Prayer.  It reminded me of an important distinction I’ve earned.  No one in my parish, the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, and perhaps even the Anglican Communion, needs this advice more than me.

Woody Allen once observed, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”  If that’s true, the Almighty thinks I am a riot.  I am afraid to count the number of occasions of grace I have missed because I was busy reminding God of the “To Do” list I had for him.  Whether in prayer or worship or just living out my workaday tasks, the notion of letting God “drive” just doesn’t seem natural.  While I recognize the genuine spiritual wisdom of Teresa’s advice, this comes harder to me than exercising, visiting the dentist or eating my vegetables.

As Arthur Burt once observed, “My greatest struggle is the struggle not to struggle.”  Here, we encounter the really dangerous spiritual quicksand.  The greater our effort, the deeper we sink.  The deeper we sink, the harder we strive. Nothing much good happens from that point on.

I recognize at least some of my foolishness.  While God’s grace may be free for everyone else, I’m convinced that I’m going to get mine the old-fashioned way:  I’ll earn it.  It never works.  Never has so far, anyway.  The trick here lies in the recognition that God’s wisdom reaches into the dark places we can’t even see, that God’s efforts will far outrun our own, and that God will work in our hearts a joy that we can’t yet imagine.  The trick, in other words, is learning to trust God.

Sometimes, being faithful seems like it requires so much work.  Teresa reminds us that it does not.  God does not require our effort.  Approaching the Lord sacramentally, training ourselves to quietly and gently live in his presence, we may yet learn to be still and know that he is God.


James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Thoughts on Stewardship and Michelangelo

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he  said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with  partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting  me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they  brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are
God’s.”   Matt. 22:15-21.

We find ourselves in the season of stewardship in most churches, and I thought we might discuss a few thoughts on the subject.  (Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a plea for you to give money to the Church or to the poor, although both are very good ideas.)  But we might discuss our stewardship over the most important asset we have been given:  our lives.

Scripture teaches that each of us were made in the image of God, and St. Paul instructs us that our lives are not our own:  we were bought with a price.  I wonder how often we treat the lives we were given with awe and reverence, and how often our lives are squandered?  We are appropriately reminded at the beginning of each Lent, “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”   Our time and lives are precious, and we are called to treat ourselves as craftsmen creating a precious work.

When asked how he sculpted a work as wonderful as David, Michelangelo supposedly said, “I looked at the stone and began to carve away everything that was not David.”  Other sources report that he said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

It seems to me that our spiritual struggle works something like that.  As good stewards of our lives, we need to take stock of those things that stand between us and God.  Whether it’s our material possessions, a long-standing quarrel or some hell of our own making, we are called chip away those things that are not part of the authentic lives we were meant to lead.  Our lives do not belong to Caesar, to the mortgage company, to fashion, or to any addiction.  Rather we are, all of us, children of the Living God.

Reading today’s lectionary from St. Matthew, we might appropriately ask, have we given to the Lord those things that belong to Lord?  Have we welcomed his children, or fed them when they were hungry?  Have we offered our friendship to those who are outcasts?  Have we treated our time in prayer and worship as a treasured gift, or as an obligation to be met?  As good stewards, God calls each of us to look at the angels within our lives and (like Michelangelo) set them free.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

The Spiritual Wisdom of Steve Jobs

It has been a week since Steve Jobs passed away, but I wanted to take a while before writing about it. It seemed like these events required a bit of time for reflection. In part, the whole thing seemed sort of “secular.” Even the wry corporate logo seems to grin at the notion of eating from the tree of knowledge: not humanity’s finest moment.

Jobs and his work at Apple seem like the classic, remarkable success story, but maybe that’s not the case. If you’ve taken the time to listen to Job’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford, I’m sure you found it moving. If you haven’t yet heard it, you can find it here: In the address, Jobs tells three stories that reveal the secret of his success: failure and catastrophe.

Although our world values success perhaps above all else, Jobs talked about: (1) dropping out of college; (2) getting fired from Apple; and (3) being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Each of these experiences, which would have looked like failure or disasters to all the world, contributed (and perhaps even brought about) that remarkable life. Jobs noted his inability, at the time of these events, to see the connections between them and their impact on his life. He described this as difficulty in connecting “the dots.”

Our world places remarkable value on success and accomplishment. It motivates so much of what we do, so much of who we are. Sometimes, what looks like sucess is nothing more than tenacity. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Nothing in Churchill’s statement, or Jobs’ commencement address, should come as a surprise to those of us who believe in the living God.

The story is as old as our removal from Eden, as old as being trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. We’ve been telling this story since the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile. Each of these events seemed like catastrophes at the time. We hear the same story as Cleopas and another disciple traveled to Emmaus, despondent and convinced that Jesus’ ministry was a great “failure.” Later, they learned that this through this catastrophe, God was at work, displaying His capacity to reveal Himself even in the horror of Golgotha.

So, while we may rightfully celebrate our successes, I hope we don’t miss the opportunity to see God at work in those events where we seem to have stumbled. When that Sunday school class doesn’t quite come off like we hoped or when confronted with a pastoral situation that we feel powerless to help with, we might remember the power of an unseen God to connect the dots. In the Church, we call that “faith.”

Requiescat en pace, Mr. Jobs.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

The Troubles

Since at least 2003, we have been squabbling in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, arguably over the issue of human sexuality.  (In this case, however, as in many cases of marital discord, the fight is probably not about what the fight’s about.) That’s not what I’m going to write about, and I hope not to write about that topic until I can say something that will bring the people of God together rather than tear them apart.  But I do think this squabble provides an excellent example of two competing visions of the Church.

In the first model, the Church is a holy place where holy people come to do holy things.  I grew up with this vision, and it saturated my understanding of the Church, probably from the moment of my baptism.  Raised in an Irish Catholic family, I served as an altar boy from the age of six.  It was not uncommon for me to serve at three services on Sunday.  I acquired a deep and abiding love of liturgy, vestments and all the other holy things one could find in church.

This model understands the Church as struggling towards “true righteousness and holiness.”  Eph. 4: 24.  Corinthians seems to reinforce this understanding of the Church:

Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch nothing unclean;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be your father,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.’

2 Cor. 6:17-18.  This view of the Church seems to motivate Jesus in the cleansing of the Temple, when he tells the money-changers, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you have made it into a den of thieves.”  Matt. 21:13.

The second model of the Church sees its role as essentially that of a hospital for sick people.  In the Daily Office this week, we heard Jesus endorse that vision of the Church.  The Pharisees commented on Jesus’ regular association with notorious sinners.

But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matt. 9: 12-13.  C.S. Lewis affirmed this view of the Church in Mere Christianity when he wrote:  “Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness.  It therefore has nothing to say (as far as I know) to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.”

Each of these visions of the Church claims the moral high ground, each relies on Holy Scripture to support its understanding of our work.  So, who’s right?  The appropriate response seems decidedly Anglican:  they both are.  We need both understandings of the Church.  Our churches must be places where people encounter the holiness of the living God, and where broken people come for healing.  Without both visions, we have shrunk the Church, and we have diminished the body of Christ.  I hope you’ll join me in praying, along with St. Francis, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”


James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Abstaining From Prayer

This Friday evening, devout Jews will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is one of the most sacred days the Jewish year and provides an opportunity to ask forgiveness for our failings. It seems an appropriate time to discuss one of our great failures, the failure to pray.

On the subject of prayer, I don’t know of a more powerful and compelling thinker than Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God, Heschel wrote: “We do not refuse to pray. We merely feel that our tongues are tied, our minds inert, our inner vision dim, when we are about to enter the door that leads to prayer. We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it.” When I first read that sentence, I knew the accusation rang true in my life. For most of us, we don’t actually say “no” to God; we just never open the invitation.

No single practice or discipline can enrich or bolster our spiritual lives more than prayer. How can we possibly find it so difficult? Within my Order, we accept the discipline of an hour of prayer and an hour of study each day. I quickly found that the hour of study was no discipline at all; it was in fact wonderful to find an excuse for doing that which I already loved. What, however, was I going to do about this “hour of prayer” thing?

One of the first things we struggle with is finding the time. I mean, there’s work, and things to do around the house, and the gym, and the endless distractions we all encounter. Then, once you’ve settled into it, the email alert goes off, or the dogs are barking at something, or the phone rings….or just about anything. In the Zen tradition, they call this “monkey mind,” the inability to focus one’s heart and one’s thoughts. And then, there’s the horrifying notion of what exactly am I going to say to the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of everything? I stammer, I struggle and time itself begins to decelerate.

Someone once asked the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, how long he prayed each day. Ramsey replied, “About three minutes. But it takes me about 57 minutes to get there.” Our lives move so fast, but our spiritual lives demand that we slow down and learn to be patient in this dialogue. As we find ourselves on the precipice of a great mystery, it’s best not to rush the process.

One method that’s worked for me regularly is beginning with the present: where I am, what’s happening in my life, what worries me and what I’m feeling. Somehow, those concrete and particular details provide a really good catalyst for prayer. After a while, I begin to see the connections between the ordinary, workaday events and circumstances of my life and the Source of my life.

And as we proceed, we might begin to abandon the hope of addressing God in magnificent or even religious language. It’s good to learn a little humility when addressing the Infinite. As Heschel said, “It is in prayer that we obtain the subsidy of God for the failing efforts of our wisdom.”

And finally, we begin to sense God rushing out to meet us, a God who is always “more ready to hear than we to pray.” Fundamentally, our prayer life should resemble a love story, because at its heart, that’s the essence of prayer.


James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Sh’ma Yisrael

During this interstice between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I thought we’d examine the Sh’ma Yisrael, or Shema. For many observant Jews, the Shema offers the central prayer service of Judaism. The recitation of this prayer twice daily is a commandment. As a good Jew, Jesus would certainly have followed this practice. Deuteronomy instructs us that we shall say this prayer upon lying down and rising up. Deut. 6-7. Some have suggested that the Shema functions less as a prayer than as a creed, a statement of the binding principles of the Jewish faith.

The first section of the prayer begins: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” We might examine those two sentences more closely.

The opening line of the Shema reminds God’s people of God’s oneness. This sometimes seems counterintuitive to us. God created the universe in all its complexity, hears the prayers of billions and billions of people and knows their needs. God authored gravity and the immense power of the stars. Surely, that God is incredibly complex. Sometimes, God seems like such a decent fellow, when all is going well and our bellies are full. At other times, when life isn’t going so well, we perceive God as uncaring, or perhaps even vengeful. Yet the Shema reminds us that of the simplicity of God, despite the complexity we might perceive.

St. Thomas wrote often of the simplicity of God. Summa Theologiae 1.3.7; Summa contra Gentiles 1.22.9-10. In fact, Aquinas described God as “infinitely simple.” The Oneness, or simplicity of God, provides the unifying power, the unifying event and idea for our disparate perceptions. No other ideology or vision or philosophy can replace God as the single, ultimate ground of meaning. The Shema expresses God’s sovereignty, God’s kingship, over all creation and creatures.

St. John comments on God’s oneness when he observes quite simply that “God is love.” 1 John 4:8. This leads us directly to the second passage of the Shema which continues: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” This passage suggests that our love of the Lord must be single-minded: there is no room here for duplicity. If we truly loved unambiguously, there would be little space in our hearts for the separation of sin. Learning to love God this way requires a great deal of us. Great love always does. The Shema provides the central focus of our spirituality: loving God. But it also teaches that where we encounter love, we encounter the divine center of things.

Jesus clearly understood the central nature of the Shema. A scribe asked Christ, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered directly from the Shema:

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”

Mark 12: 29-30. Jesus then added a gloss to the Shema, taking his reference from Leviticus:

“The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:32. Jesus teaches that these two commandments provide the framework, the scaffolding, for the balance of the Scriptures. Matt. 22:40. Because “our neighbors” are made in the image of God, our love of them reveals the depth of our love of the Almighty. Our capacity to love God is bounded by our capacity to love “our neighbors.”

Understanding the Shema, then, isn’t something clever or broad-minded Christians can discuss at cocktail parties. It provides us with a deep and profound understanding of who Jesus was and what he thought was important. Praying the Shema at morning and in the evening, then, helps us to understand Christ. We have a great deal to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus thought so, anyway.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis