Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Still Hour

    

So beautiful is the still hour of the sea’s withdrawal, as beautiful as the sea’s return when encroaching waves pound up the beach, pressing to reach those dark rumpled chains of seaweed which mark the last high tide.
     We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships.  We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb.  We are afraid it will never return.  We insist on permanence, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth and fluidity–in freedom in the sense that dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.  The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping even.  Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

Today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer suggests a problem many of us struggle with in our spiritual lives:  the gravitational pull of the past and present which distracts us from the current movement of the Spirit. I wonder if that’s not, in part, what Jesus had in mind when he said, “[I]f I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”  John 16:7.  As long as Jesus remained physically with the apostles, they were trapped in the memory of their failures or lost in their Messianic expectations for the future.  God had something quite different in store for them.

The past and the future bind us in a kind of Pushmi-pullyu struggle.  We hear this in our churches regularly.  “I really liked the music before they changed it” or “I’m really worried about the direction our new minister is moving the church.”  I think we do something similar in our own lives.  “I was not brought up in a home where reading the Bible was important so that’s just not a big part of my spiritual life.”  “Maybe once the kids are gone we will go to church more regularly.”  We feel the gravitational pull of the past and the present, sometimes longingly, sometimes full of anxiety, but always distracting us from the present moment.

Sometimes, we encounter the diversion of longing for a time when we felt really close to God, or when church offered a more meaningful experience.   In Letters to Malcolm,  C.S. Lewis compared this to shouting “Encore!” to God.  We tell the Almighty things were better before, and want Him to make it like it used to be.  Lewis wrote, “It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.”

Whether we find ourselves diverted by the past or the future, we confront the difficulty of locating God (and ourselves) in the present moment.  The movement away from the immediate always assumes that God’s presence today will not suffice.  We go chasing after a richer yesterday or running away from a distressing tomorrow, and run the risk of overlooking the presence of the Spirit today.  Perhaps we undervalue the advice of the psalmist:  “Be still and know that I am God.”

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Spirit of Truth

Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But, now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Today is the Feast of the Pentecost, which serves as the terminus of the cycle which marks and celebrates the life of Christ.  Easter has come and gone; Jesus has ascended to the Father. These events have filled the disciples’ hearts with sorrow.  Their Rabbi, their friend, is returning home and leaving them.

In other sense, however, we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the Church.    The Church must now learn to listen for the voice of God within the community of believers inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus describes the Spirit as the Advocate (in Greek, parakletos).  The word parakletos connotes an advocate in a legal proceeding, who comes to the aid of a witness or a cause.  Just so, the Spirit will come to assist the disciples as they bear witness to the message of Jesus.  The term parakletos also connotes a comforter, an assistant and a companion.

Jesus has assured us of the presence of the Advocate, of the immediacy of the Spirit.  He promises that the Spirit will lead us into the truth. The Spirit will direct us through and to faith, a radical trust in the life and message of Jesus. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to this process as theosis, a journey through which our lives become more and more deeply entwined with the life of the Father and the Son.  Remembering the image of Jesus as the vine, through the Spirit the life of the Father and the Son is grafted onto our lives, our history.

The reading today points also to the unity and interdependence of the Trinity.  Jesus teaches that “all that the Father has is mine” and that the Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to us.  Jesus teaches that no member of the Trinity acts independently; similarly we need to learn to live interdependently. Pentecost involves learning to trust God as a companion, and learning to trust each other.

Henri Nouwen once wrote that “education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God.”  Pentecost involves listening for the Trinitarian voice within the Church and in the world.  That voice will remain near us and within us.  Jesus promised us that the Spirit of Truth would offer us that sense of comfort, that sense of confidence, that sense of peace.

Pax Spiritus,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Study of Wisdom

     Augustine said:      “The wise will shine like stars and those who can make others wise will be bright with eternal splendour.”      “Feed your soul on divine readings; they will prepare for you a spiritual feast.”  
Jerome said:
     “It is much better to speak the truth clumsily than to wax eloquently with a lie.”
Gregory said:      “Wisdom is to fear God and keep far from evil.”
“The beginning of wisdom is to avoid evil:  the second stage is to do good.”
     “Whoever wants to understand what he is hearing must hasten to translate what he has already heard into action.”
     Isadore said:      “Simplicity joined with ignorance is called stupidity: simplicity joined with prudence is called wisdom.”

Defensor Gramaticus Book of Sparkling Sayings, 18

Again, I found this piece in today’s readings from Drinking From the Hidden Fountain.  From a very early age, I have been attracted to the notion of wisdom, particularly as distinct (although not always separate) from intellect.  Wisdom seems to call for a special kind of “knowing”, and implies patience, simplicity, kindness, and carefulness.  In my experience, although intellect may be a personal quality, wisdom most often comes from community.

In the spiritual setting, that community involves listening creatively to the voices around us, including the voices of the past.  Holy Scripture, when read carefully, offers us the collective wisdom of the Church. That “great cloud of witnesses”, the saints who have gone before us, they get a vote, too.  Similarly, the we sometimes locate wisdom collective voice of the Church.

I particularly like the quotation from Gregory, suggesting that our notion of wisdom is always incomplete if we simply try and avoid evil.  Real wisdom lies in seeking out the good.  Rather than simply avoiding sin, we are called to make this world a better place:  alleviating suffering, helping out the poor, visiting those who are sick or in prison, and binding up the brokenhearted.  Perhaps there we will find wisdom, in the translation from a good idea to a committed heart.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Study of Wisdom

Augustine said:
     “The wise will shine like stars and those who can make others wise will be bright with eternal splendour.”
     “Feed your soul on divine readings; they will prepare for you a spiritual feast.”
Jerome said:
     “It is much better to speak the truth clumsily than to wax eloquently with a lie.”
Gregory said:
     “Wisdom is to fear God and keep far from evil.”
     “The beginning of wisdom is to avoid evil:  the second stage is to do good.”
     “Whoever wants to understand what he is hearing must hasten to translate what he has already heard into action.”
Isadore said:
     “Simplicity joined with ignorance is called stupidity: simplicity joined with prudence is called wisdom.”
Defensor Gramaticus
Book of Sparkling Sayings, 18

Again, I found this piece in today’s readings from Drinking From the Hidden Fountain.  From a very early age, I have been attracted to the notion of wisdom, particularly as distinct (although not always seperate) from intellect.  Wisdom seems to call for a special kind of “knowing”, and implies patience, simplicity, kindness, and carefulness.  In my experience, although intellect may be a personal quality, wisdom most often comes from community.

In the spiritual setting, that community involves listening creatively to the voices around us, including the voices of the past.  Holy Scripture, when read carefully, offers us the collective wisdom of the Church. That “great cloud of witnesses”, the saints who have gone before us, they get a vote, too.  Similarly, the we sometimes locate wisdom collective voice of the Church.

I particularly like the quotation from Gregory, suggesting that our notion of wisdom is always incomplete if we simply try and avoid evil.  Real wisdom lies in seeking out the good.  Rather than simply avoiding sin, we are called to make this world a better place:  alleviating suffering, helping out the poor, visiting those who are sick or in prison, and binding up the brokenhearted.  Perhaps there we will find wisdom, in the translation from a good idea to a committed heart.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Standing on Holy Ground

 

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”  But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. Exodus 3:1-15.

I found this reading in the Daily Office for today.  The passage begins with Moses engaged in an everyday sort of task.  He’s tending to his father-in-law’s flock; he’s working.  Moses has not set out on a spiritual journey, he hasn’t gone into the desert to retreat and encounter the Infinite.  Like most of us, God confronts Moses when he’s busy trying to do something else.

We should also note that Moses is pretty much homeless when this remarkable event happens.  Although an Israelite child, he was adopted by the Egyptians and lived among them until he killed an Egyptian overseer.  He runs away from the wrath of Pharoah into the land of Midian.  And as we know from the balance of the story, Moses will spend the bulk of his life wandering.  (It’s a bit ironic that he ends up finding a homeland for his people, but not for himself.)  In fact, Moses offers a revealing glimpse into himself when he says, “I have been an alien living in a foreign land.”  Gen. 2:22.  I think lots of folks feel that way, constantly looking for a home.

As Moses encounters this burning bush, YHWH tells him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  The removal of one’s sandals not only signifies that one has arrived at a sacred space, but also (within many cultures) suggests that one has entered a home.  Therefore Moses, the wanderer, finds his home with the Lord.

Two questions from this passage echo into each of our lives, and will shape the course of our faith.  The first is the question Moses asks of the Lord:  “Who am I?”  Moses wants to know his own authority to preach truth to power, and it’s a question most of us have faced at one time or another.  Who am I to be God’s voice in this troubled world?  Who am I to speak out against something that’s wrong?

We should find the second question equally troubling, and equally determinative for us.  Moses asks the Lord (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of our ancestors), “Who are you?”  Moses wants to know exactly what he’s going to tell people about who he met in the burning bush.  He wants to understand the Almighty; he wants to know God’s name.

The answer Moses heard, “I AM WHO I AM,” probably didn’t leave him completely satisfied.  The name “I AM” obviously conjures up so many of Jesus’ “I am” statements (the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, etc).  In this case, however, we might find particular encouragement in Jesus’ assurance:  “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matt. 28:20.

Many of us still hear the reverberations of these two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As we begin to answer them, I think we may find the story of Moses even more rich.  Once Moses begins to understand the answers (a rudimentary and incomplete understanding) God immediately sends him on a mission.  In Moses’ case, the mission involves confronting Pharoah and leading the people into Israel as God saves His people.  In our case, that mission may be completely different.  But only through that journey, which will last for the rest of his life, will Moses come to more fully understand who God is and who Moses is.

The journey leads him to a deeper understanding of YHWH, which leads him to a deeper understanding of himself, which leads him further along the journey.  I believe that’s part of the reason why the Exodus became the overarching narrative of the Jewish people, and why it remains so important today.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Gift of Peace

     You cannot acquire the gift of the peace if by your anger you destroy the peace of the Lord.
     True patience is to suffer the wrongs done to us by others in an unruffled spirit and without feeling resentment.  Patience bears with others because it loves them; to bear with them and yet to hate them is not the virtue of patience but a smokescreen for anger.
     True patience grows with the growth of love.  We put up with our neighbours to the extent that we love them.  If you love, you are patient.  If you cease loving, you will cease being patient.  The less we love, the less patience we show.
     If we truly preserve patience in our souls, we are martyrs without being killed.

                                            –Gregory the Great, Defensor Gramaticus

I found this bit of wisdom in the reading for today in a wonderful little book, Drinking From the Hidden Fountain:  A Patristic Breviary.  Pope Gregory I wrote the reading for today.  The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Anglican Church and some Lutheran churches recognize Gregory as a saint.  The first pope to spring from the monastic tradition, he is the patron saint of musicians, students and teachers.

Gregory was born around 540 A.D., and lived in very tumultuous times for the Church which included the defeat of the Roman Empire by the Goths, famine and a plague that killed over a third of the population.  The papacy was virtually forced on Gregory, who longed for the monastic life.  Although he was deeply interested in and involved with the liturgy, Gregory probably had no substantial involvement with Gregorian chant which bears his name.  (Gregorian chant was first written down in the early 9th century.)  He made extensive use of the title servus servorum Dei (servant of the servants of God) in official documents, revealing a deep and abiding humility.

In this short little selection from Gregory, we see a hint of his humility and catch a glimpse of why he was so deeply loved and revered.  Gregory points out how deeply our anger undermines the peace we so desperately long for and need.  Yet although we want peace in our lives, we just aren’t willing to let go of our anger and resentments.

He encourages us to turn to the ancient Christian virtue of patience.  St. Paul recognized patience as one of the gifts of the Spirit.  Gal. 5:22.  St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:  “Patience is one of the humble, workaday virtues; but it is, in a real sense, the root and guardian of all virtues, not causing them, but removing obstacles to their operation. Do away with patience and the gates are open for a flood of discontent and sin.”

Long before psychology taught us about passive/aggressive behavior, St. Gregory described it:  “Patience bears with others because it loves them; to bear with them and yet to hate them is not the virtue of patience but a smokescreen for anger.”  Most anger arises from a lack of patience.  In fact, many of our intemperate statements begin:  “I’ve just about lost my patience with . . . . (insert the object of our rage here).”

Our impatience usually carries with it either an implicit message of our moral superiority or wrongs that we cannot or  will not release. We are so anxious to claim the moral high ground that we forget that Jesus blessed the poor in spirit and the meek rather than the righteously indignant. Patience requires the understanding that although our brothers and sisters may not yet be the people God intends them to be, neither are we.

St. Gregory correctly showed us the link between patience and love.  Again, Paul had noted this link in Scripture, writing:  “Love is patient; love is kind.”  Learning to love means learning and practicing patience.  Admittedly, it’s not my strongest gift, but I know that if I want to create a peaceful life and a peaceful world, that path begins with patience.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A New Song

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm
has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory;
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

 Sing to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of song.

 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it,
the lands and those who dwell therein.

 Let the rivers clap their hands,
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.

 In righteousness shall he judge the world
and the peoples with equity.  Psalm 98.

The Psalm from today’s Lectionary offers us the perfect message as we near the end of the Easter season.  The Psalmist calls for every person, every nation, and all of creation to rise up in a joyful song of being known and loved by the God of Israel. We need “a new song” because God has done something new, something out of our experience.  Even the rivers will clap their hands as God’s judgment will set creation right.

The Sabbath, the day of rest, offers both Jews and Christians the principle occasion for giving praise to God.  Praise is a funny thing; it is not particularly useful and does not accomplish any particular thing.  Praise, therefore, is not a means to an end.  Rather, praise is the end.  We join together to acknowledge God and give Him thanks for no particular reason other than He is God.  And somehow, in that simple act of gratitude, the Psalmist tells us we will find our joy.

One of the reoccurring ideas in this psalm is the Lord’s “victory”, also sometimes translated as “salvation”.  In the original Hebrew, the word is Y’shua or yeshua.  That word is the basis for the name of the old Testament hero Joshua, and is anglicized as “Jesus.”  Viewed through a Christian lens, this psalm speaks of the victory God has won, offering us a wonderful Easter message.

Walter Brueggeman has observed, “In this literature the community of faith has heard and continues to hear the sovereign speech of God, who meets the community in its depths of need and in its heights of celebration. The Psalms draw our entire life under the rule of God, where everything may be submitted to the God of the gospel.”

In the life of Christ, God sang a love song to all of creation, a song through which all creation was made new.  This psalm invites us to share in that song, replying to God’s song with great gladness.  My prayer for all of us is that we join in that new song, in that love song, with happy voices and glad hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis