Monthly Archives: March 2012

Unblemished, Unqualified Mercy

But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins.  For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer.  Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this.  With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings.  If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be.  God is a God of the present.  Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).

My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327.  A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology.  Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period.  Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas.  The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.

In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world.  The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and  incomplete.  Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.

We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.  Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 43.  There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with.  After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity.  Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us.  As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution.  Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience.  Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”

Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget.  It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.  As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.”  We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us.  As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice.  We find mercy and grace.  If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.

Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging.  We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults.  We strain to share the grace of the present moment.   It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

We Wish to See Jesus

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.  John 12: 20-33.

In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we feel the imminent approach of the Passion, as though the gravitational forces surrounding the Cross were drawing Christ to them.  Just as these Greeks (who may have been Gentiles or may have been Hellenized Jews) come seeking after Jesus, Christ announces that His ministry is coming to its fruition.  It’s a terribly strange notion of fruition, however, because Jesus teaches his disciples that while he will be “glorified”, His glorification will entail His death.  Jesus compares Himself to a grain of wheat, a self-description consistent with his earlier announcement:  “I am the bread of life.”  John 6:35.

While the world struggles to see Jesus in his glory, Jesus teaches that death isn’t the end of the story.  Placing this story in context, Jesus hinted at this teaching earlier.  We should recall that just one chapter earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  We already have a sense, therefore, that Jesus’ ministry will entail a redefinition of “dying”.  This new understanding will entail the notion that surrendering our autonomy (serving Jesus rather than ourselves) and involves following Jesus even following Him through death’s door.

Jesus does not face these facts lightly, admitting that this prospect troubles His soul.  I suspect it shook Him to his core, just as it should trouble us.  Despite these terrible struggles, Jesus knows that the reason for the Incarnation lies within this hour, within these events. God then announces His intention to use these horrific events for the glory of His name and kingdom.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, however, the people misunderstand and think it’s just the thunder, or maybe an angel.

Once again, John plays upon the double-meaning of the notion of Jesus being “lifted up”. This time, the phrase  carries with it the double meaning of Jesus lifted up on the cross, and his ascension into heaven.  Again, this passage recalls Moses lifting up the bronze serpents in the wilderness, healing those who look upon it.  Jesus says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to Himself.

Now, we begin to get a sense of the remarkable gravitational pull of Jesus and the cross, drawing all of mankind into their vortex.  In that gravitational maelstrom, we will encounter the unbearable weight of the cross, which even Christ could not carry alone.  Within that vortex, we find love, hatred, beauty and pain, humanity, and God.

In the 26th verse of this passage, Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will be my servant also.”  This passage echoes with the name God offers Moses as the name of the divine.  Ex. 3:14  (“I Am Who I Am”).  Following Jesus requires presence, but offers the gift of the presence of the Father.

If, like those first century Greeks, we “wish to see Jesus”, this is no time to cover our eyes.  It’s happening now; “the hour has come”.  Jesus views these events as God’s judgment on the world, which will bring about the expulsion of our Ancient Enemy.  (In the Greek, the word for that judgment is krisis, from which we derive our word “crisis”.)  Jesus came for this time, and those who follow Him must go through this Passion with Christ.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Cost We Will Pay

Observe, admire and obey may be given as the novice’s watchwords.  The ideal must not remain an ideal, but has to be realized at whatever the cost.  The cost is heroism.

–St. John Cassian

I found this observation from St. John Cassian in Celtic Daily Prayer.  It spoke to me for a number of reasons.  Today, I will leave for Louisiana for a meeting of my house within the Anglican Order of Preachers (the Dominicans).  Most folks consider Cassian the father of monasticism in the West.  So, in a broad sense, as my brothers and sisters gather, we meet in imitation of Abba Cassian.

In this little passage, St. Cassian gives advice to those who are novices in a religious order.  In most religious orders today, one begins the process of discerning whether one has a vocation as a postulant.  After some period of study, reflection, prayer and a goodly amount of questioning, one can request to become a novice.  Novices have been admitted to a specific religious order as “beginners” and will generally remain novices for at least a year or two.

Cassian suggests that novices are called to: (1) observe; (2) admire; and (3) obey. In other words, they are learning how to follow and imitate their brothers and sisters.  In an even broader sense, all monastics and all Christians are called into the imitation of our rabbi, Jesus Christ.  While we all seek to imitate our Lord, we should not be surprised that others along the same path may arrive at a different place.  As Thomas a Kempis (wrote The Imitation of Christ) observed, “A book has but one voice, but it does not instruct everyone alike.”

Cassian warns that our ideals must not remain ideals; we must bring them to fruition.  It will not suffice to say we follow Christ; we must become Christ-like (a process our Orthodox brothers and sisters call theosis).  As I’ve observed before, the Christian life is not a spectator sport.

Cassian also warns us that this effort carries a significant price:  “The cost is heroism.”  Jesus calls us to set aside our insecurities, our self-doubts, and even our inadequacies.  We must be prepared to face epic failure as we stumble, struggle and stutter our way into our new life in Christ.  Jesus called those who are willing to pay that price his friends; He called them disciples.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

How Can These Things Be?

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  Numbers 21: 4-9.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  John 3: 14-16.

The first passage, from the Book of Numbers, deeply challenges our understanding of Yahweh, and confronts our  imaginations.  It takes place against the backdrop of  the consistent theme within the Exodus narrative:  forty years of wandering in the wilderness, marked by the people’s resistance, God’s punishment, the people’s repentance, and God’s restoration.   As the people near the end of their journey, a campaign of rebellion  arose against both Moses and God.  The text reports that God addressed this issue through an infestation of seraphs (poisonous snakes).

One might reasonably conclude that there were already poisonous snakes among the Hebrew people, spreading this contagion of destructive grumbling.  While we may struggle with the notion that God sent the snakes down upon the Hebrews, I want to suggest that those vipers were merely visible tokens of the toxic rebellion that already enveloped them.  The serpents which would lead to their deaths were already there.  God merely revealed a physical sign of the spiritual reality they already confronted.  It’s as though the Lord were telling them, “This is what your way looks like.”

In this fitting Lenten passage, when the people acknowledge their complicity for their situation, God intervenes to save them.  God instructs Moses, who creates a bronze serpent placed upon a pole.  When those bitten by snakes look upon this image, this icon, God heals them.  Out of this destructive pattern of sin and death, God will raise up a way of healing.  This leads us to the Gospel reading for today.

In the Gospel passage, we encounter the terribly interesting figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who secretly followed Jesus.  Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ imagination, teaching about the need for a man to be “born again”.  Jesus then reveals his messianic role, drawing on the iconic image of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness.  This statement carries with it the double-meaning of the Christ being raised up as the Messiah and of Jesus raised up on the cross.  As with the earlier passage from Numbers, Jesus describes a spiritual reality that the world cannot yet comprehend.

The cross will become the source of healing this broken world.  Just as with the bronze serpent, that which we perceived as an image of fear and death becomes the source of our new life.  Again, it’s as though God said to the world, “All right.  This horror on Golgotha is the result of the way you want to do business.  But I can still create life where you see nothing but death and shame.”

 Jesus teaches Nicodemus that believing  in the Son “lifted up” provides the way to eternal life.  It’s important to note that the Greek phrase John uses isn’t actually “believes in him” but rather “believes into him”.  In other words, Jesus isn’t describing an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but rather a radical submission and new way of life.  Jesus offers eternal life, therefore, to those who join in His way of life.  Thus, St. Paul could accurately say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal. 2:20.

John’s Gospel offers us a deeply rooted theology of the cross.  In fact, for St. John, the cross operates as the fulcrum point upon which all of human history turns.  This passage seems to answer, perhaps a little obliquely, Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?”  John 3:9.

Jesus points to a spiritual reality we cannot yet see, that we cannot yet understand.  Our new life, our eternal life, in Christ originates in one mysterious, glorious, incomprehensible notion:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes into him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Salvation arises through God’s love, revealed on the cross.  In the depth of this Lenten season, that’s good news.

Shabbat shalom,

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Moses and the Bronze Serpent © Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

The Grace of Charity

If you have received from God the gift of knowledge, however limited, beware of neglecting charity and temperance.  They are virtues which radically purify the soul from passions and so open the way of knowledge continually.
The way of spiritual knowledge passes through inner freedom and humility.  Without them we shall never see the Lord.
“Knowledge puffs up whereas charity builds up.”  [1 Cor. 8:1.]  Therefore, unite knowledge with charity and by being cleansed from pride you will build yourself up and all those who are your neighbors.

Charity takes its power to build up from the fact that it is never envious nor unkind.  It is natural for knowledge to bring with it, at the beginning anyway, some measure of presumption and envy.  But charity overcomes these defects:  presumption because “it is not puffed up” and envy because “it is patient and kind.”  [1 Cor. 13:4]

Anyone who has knowledge, therefore, ought also to have charity, because charity can save his spirit from injury.
      –Maximus the Confessor (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain)

The Dominican Order expects its brothers and sisters to spend an hour a day in prayer and an hour a day in study of Holy Scripture and theology.  Frankly, I love that part of the rubric of my Order, because learning and study come easy to me.  Maximus the Confessor reminds me that maybe it comes a bit too easy.

Maximus was a monk who lived from around 580 to 662.  Most scholars believe that he was born in Constantinople; we know he was tried there for heresy.  Maximus suffered both exile and torture for the faith.  After his death, the Church declared his innocence of the charge of heresy.  Both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches recognize him as a saint and a Father of the Church.  He famously said, “Theology without practice is the theology of demons.”

Looking to the reading today, Maximus reminds us that our study and our learning must be rooted in the ancient Christian practice of charity.  Charity carried a slightly different meaning then; it meant more than simply giving money to the poor.  Charity meant loving kindness without limits.  This notion was related to the Hebrew concept of chesed or the Greek word agape.

Thomas Aquinas said that all the virtues pointed toward charity, the highest of the virtues, and charity (or love) makes all the other virtues possible.  Charity is a grace, and we practice charity because we were first loved by God.  Charity relates closely to humility because both enable us to lay aside our own desires and concerns for a while.  As a friend of mine observed, the Christian virtue of humility doesn’t mean we think less of ourselves; it means we think of ourselves less.

Maximus reminds us that all our study, all our theology, will leave us parched and withered unless we drink from the well of charity.  Our knowledge is always deeply incomplete and inadequate.  Rabbi Heschel once said, “The tree of knowledge grows upon the soil of mystery.”  Part of that mystery lies in God’s limitless capacity to love, and our capacity to reflect His love through the practice of charity.  Thus, as Heschel observed, “When I was young I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

I wish you a good and holy Lent,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

N.B.  Earlier this week, through a computer glitch or some sort of (as yet unknown) operator error, this post was erroneously published as a draft with many, many typos.  I was mortified.  The irony of that event, in a post about humility is not lost on me, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies.

Cleaning (God’s) House

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  John 2: 13-22.

Few paths offer a quicker road to trouble than criticizing someone’s religion or their politics.  Almost certainly, Jesus knew that about us, and travelling down that road got Him killed.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, Jesus criticized both the religion and the politics of the Judean authorities of that time.

The Temple stood as a monument to something sacred and holy:  it represented the intersection of heaven and earth, the dwelling place of the Living God, and a visible symbol of both national identity and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.  Most people would perceive an attack on the Temple  as an attack on the faith (and the nation) itself.  These events took place as the city of Jerusalem swelled with the Passover crowds.

All four Gospels record this event, one of the few occasions on which Jesus became deeply angry.  In the other three Gospels, Jesus calls the Temple a “den of thieves.”  John places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as opposed to the synoptic Gospels which place it much later.

Jesus apparently became enraged upon observing the barriers thrown up by the priestly authorities, barriers which stood between God and His people.  For example, because Roman coins were forbidden in the Temple, they had to be exchanged (at a substantial discount) for the currency of the Temple.

The Temple authorities also collaborated with the Roman occupation, and Jesus overturned that table as well.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus  insults the Temple culture, calling it a “marketplace.”  Trading on access to the Holy was then, and still remains, a special kind of blasphemy.  Jesus became enraged when He saw the Sacred being traded like a commodity.  I think we underestimate the Gospel if we see this as a historical criticism of “the Jews” back then.

Our churches still seek to collaborate with political power.  We still fall under the thrall of a purity system that separates the righteous from the sinners, the holy from the impure and the whole from those who are broken.  We might well examine the ways in which we still place obstacles in the paths of those who come looking for God.  We might wonder whether our churches, like the Temple in Jesus’ time, have become comfortable monuments to the status quo.  We might ask whether our houses of worship have become mutual admiration societies rather than instruments of change.  Perhaps we should share the Savior’s sense of outrage when we encounter it.

The Judean authorities asked Jesus to provide them with a sign (seimeion), in other words, to show them the authority by which Jesus issues this prophetic condemnation.  Asked for an explanation, Jesus replies with an enigma.  Jesus responds that upon the destruction of “this temple”, he will raise it up in three days.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, Jesus is misunderstood.  (We find the classic example of this in Jesus’ trial as Pilate questions Him.  John 18, 19.)  Jesus speaks of the sanctuary of His body; the Judeans think He’s talking about the architecture.

Ultimately, Jesus will displace the Temple as the intersection of heaven and earth.  As He told the Samaritan woman only two chapters later, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  John 4:21. Further, Jesus’ death would signal the final sacrifice, rendering the Temple culture obsolete. Jesus thus appropriates the functions of the Temple for Himself.  The life of Christ would come to operate as the new meeting place for those seeking El Shaddai (God Almighty).

Like the Temple culture of Jesus’ time, many of us would still prefer a God we could do business with (see here).  Jesus offers us something radically different:  He offers Himself.  He becomes the locus point (the alpha and the omega) where human history intersects with the Father. He has been raised as the new edifice where we can encounter the holy.

As we come to this new Temple, Jesus doesn’t expect us to bring a dove or to engage in some special ritual.  He asks us to take the whip into our own hands, and chase away everything that separates us from God. He asks us to come and offer ourselves, our whole lives, without reservation. He asks us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Greater Danger

We see also that the greater danger does not come from outside us.  It comes from within.  It comes from our very selves.  The enemy is within us.  Within us is the very progenitor of our error; within us, I say, dwells our adversary.  Hence, we must examine our aims, explore the habits of our minds, be watchful over our thoughts and over the desires of our heart.
Let us therefore not seek for causes outside ourselves nor blame others for them.  Let us acknowledge our guilt.  For we must willingly attribute to ourselves, not to others, whatever evil we can avoid doing when we so choose.  St. Ambrose (Bishop of Milan), The Six Days of Creation 1, 31-32.

Again, I found this bit of wisdom in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.  St. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan, and lived in the fourth century.  He fought against the Arian heresy (which held that Jesus had not existed eternally and was subordinate to God the Father).  He often stood against imperial authority and was one of the four original Doctors of the Church.

Ambrose rightly points to one of our great shortcomings:  our willingness to justify ourselves by blaming others.  It’s a very old problem, dating back to the first sin recorded in Scripture.  When God asks Adam whether he has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam replies:  “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.”  Gen. 3:12.  Adam thus inaugurates our primary strategy for dealing with sin:  justifying ourselves by spreading the blame.  In essence, Adam said that Eve bore the real responsibility for this offense, along with God who gave her to him.

Scripture offers a very clear witness on this point.  Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’seye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”  Luke 6:41.  Perhaps more to the point, St. John reminds us:  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  1 John 1: 8-9.

Our desperate efforts to justify what we’ve done, to justify ourselves before the Almighty, place our souls in grave peril.  Christ invites us to drink from the cup of forgiveness, and yet we turn away and deny that we are thirsty.  As C.S. Lewis observed:  “We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument…Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.” We want so fiercely to be “good” people, and perhaps even more frantically to appear to be “good” people.  I think in part we feel this way because we do not really trust in God’s infinite capacity to love and forgive. 

I wonder, at our core, how many of us really trust God?  The psalmist wrote that our Father would not refuse a broken and contrite heart.  The real risk to our spiritual lives lies, as St. Ambrose observed, lies in our stubborn insistence on externalizing evil, rather than recognizing the ways in which we’ve separated ourselves from God.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis