Monthly Archives: August 2012

Letting Go of Fear

If someone really does not care whether they live or die it is hard to threaten them.  If our identity lies in whose we are, and not just who we are, then even loss of reputation will only be a temporary setback.  The need to be someone, to have clout, to command respect, to have prestige or position, these are shackles every bit as strong as those of materialism.
To be seen as holy, or spiritually mature, someone of depth, having a quiet authority: are these not also ambitions, or bolsters of our status?
If we can only reach the true poverty and yieldedness of not “needing to be” anything (even a humble nothing), then we will be truly invisible.  We will be unable to be bought by any pressure.

–Celtic Daily Prayer

Today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer offers us several lessons about our spiritual lives. I taught a class Sunday on one of the primary threats to our relationship with God: fear.  When we turn onto the highway of fear, we find that it’s full of toll roads.  Fear may be our Ancient Enemy’s most powerful weapon.  When I look back on the worst mistakes I’ve made in my life, I find that they were motivated by a common denominator:  I was afraid.

Fear can manifest itself in a number of ways.  The more our wealth increases, the more we fear that we might lose it: through thieves, market fluctuations, taxation, or that it just might not be enough. Thus, Jesus regularly cautioned us about letting go of our wealth.

Today’s reading, however, cautions us about another kind of fear: the need to be well thought of, to command respect, and achieve spiritual advancement.  It’s a caution that I take to heart.  From a very early age, I wanted to be “the smartest guy in the room.”  And for those of us in the religious life, our fear can push us into a fear of spiritual disrespect.  It’s a very special kind of pride, which can manifest itself in a particular type of fear.  We wonder, “What if they don’t listen? What if they think I’m shallow?”

And yet, Jesus taught us that the kingdom of heaven would belong to the poor in spirit. Matt. 5:3. What does spiritual poverty mean to us?  The notion reminds me of Job, who lost everything there was to lose. (Coincidentally, the readings from the Daily Office are focussing on Job. The icon above is a very old icon of Job.)  Every last bit of pride was stripped from him. And yet, Job never abandoned the Source of his life. In many ways, I think the Book of Job is one of the most Christian books of the Old Testament.

The trick, I think, lies in remembering (as Celtic Daily Prayer reminds us) not so much who we are as whose we are. We are beloved children of God and we belong only to Him.  Nothing else matters so much as that.  And when we come to that realization, like Job, we find comfort in the knowledge that “my Redeemer lives.”  Job 19:25.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

To Whom Can We Go?

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:56-69.

The Lectionary brings us now to the final and critical passage from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. To place it in context, Jesus has fed the five thousand, has walked on water, and now tries to teach the crowd about his flesh and blood as the road to eternal life.  That message does not go over so well.

John reports that many in the crowd could not accept this “difficult” teaching. Even some of his disciples muttered and complained.  As we hear about the disciples grumbling about this teaching, we hear the echo of God’s people grumbling about bread in the wilderness during the Exodus.  Jesus knew the crowd found His teaching offensive; his words were scandalous and incendiary, and the crowd began to turn away.

We shouldn’t judge those who turned away too harshly; Jesus’ teachings ran contrary to scripture. Leviticus clearly instructed, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.” Lev. 17:10.  We find the same prohibition in the Book of Genesis:  “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Genesis 9:3-4.

Leviticus reveals the reasons for this prohibition: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. Lev. 17: 14. Moreover, this is one of the “I Am” passages in John’s gospel in which Jesus identifies himself with YHWH (“I am who am”). Thus, the crowd would have struggled with Jesus’ teaching on several levels.

Jesus instructs the crowd to consider the ways of heaven, and turn away from their focus on the ways of this world. He tells them, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Scripture taught them not to eat blood because it contained the essence of life.  Jesus tells us that He wants His very life coursing though our veins, through our lives. His spirit will become our food, the life force animating and running through us.

John tells us that many in the crowd turned away from Jesus, turned back into “the things of the past” (eis ta opiso in the Greek). They returned to a spiritual life that was more traditional comfortable, more comfortable. They returned to a religious life that seemed much more safe.

Now we reach the climax, the fulcrum upon which the entire sixth chapter of John (in which we’ve spent several weeks) turns. Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “Are you going to leave me, too?”  And Peter (stumbling, clumsy Peter) responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter’s answer, in one sense, is heartbreaking:  “Where else are we going to go?”  It’s a question we sometimes ask ourselves as we confront the heartbreaking moments in our lives.

The disciples have come to that remarkable point at which there’s really no turning back for them.  Wherever Jesus is going, no matter how difficult, that’s their path as well. Whatever they’ve found in Jesus is beyond this world, beyond the Temple, and yes, beyond “religion”. They are coloring outside the lines now, because the life of Christ has begun to run through them.

In the past, I’ve written about the tremendous mystery of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.  In this passage, we see the Twelve drawn into perhaps the greatest mystery of all: God’s deep and abiding love for us. I pray that we will all be drawn by the Father into that mystery, until the life of the Holy One flows in and through us.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Thoughts On the Church

We are “peculiar”.   We have chosen not to go with the majority.  We shall pray and reflect on the life of Christ:  most people don’t do this.  We shall worship and receive God’s gifts in His sacraments: most people don’t do this.  We shall be in a minority: we shall be odd. There will be no danger for us in that, as long as we don’t begin actually to like being odd.  We can see there, of course, the danger of wanting to withdraw into the small group of like-minded people, and to build the barricades to keep out those who are not sufficiently odd in our variety of oddness.  That is the way to create sects and divisions, in which each is sure of his own chosenness and pours scorn on that of the others.  In fact, we have to find a balance.  It is our faith that God loves all, and all to Him are welcome.  But there has probably never been a time in history when the majority of people were seriously seeking Him.
–Kate Tristam

I ran across this passage in Celtic Daily Prayer.  The author, Kate Tristam, was one of the first ordained women in the Anglican Church. She was the Deaconess of the Church on the island of Lindisfarne, one of the earliest Christian monastic communities  in the British isles.  (St. Aidan founded the monastery there in about 635 A.D.)

I think this passage contains two terribly important messages for the Church.  First, the Church must, of necessity, seem “odd” to the world.  Our values are not the same as the values of the world.  The Church values prayer, contemplation, and spiritual growth.  The world values power, and wealth, success. The world calls for clarity and certainty ; our faith calls us into mystery. Thus, St. Paul cautioned, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Romans 12:2.

The Church’s message must always remain counter-cultural.  Ever since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (in 380 A.D.), the Church has struggled with the lure of culture. The problem wasn’t that the Empire began to take on the attributes of Christianity; the problem was that the Church began to look a lot like the Empire.

Our church’s must recover their focus on spiritual growth and discipleship, rather than budgets and average Sunday attendance. The world compels us toward comfort; Christianity pushes us toward change.  The world calls us to love those who are good or kind or pretty; Christ calls us to love those who do evil, those who are cruel, and those who are scarred. Thus, C.W. Lewis wrote, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly wouldn’t recommend Christianity.” Conversely, when we’re feeling really very much at ease in our churches, and when our churches are feeling really comfortable with themselves, we need to question just how authentically Christian they are.

The passage then offers us another  admonition.  Amma Tristam cautions us against withdrawing into “small group of like-minded people, and to build the barricades to keep out those who are not sufficiently odd in our variety of oddness.” In other words, she rightly warns us against the schismatic impulse, teaching about the danger of dividing into ever-smaller groups until our churches become echo chambers where the only voice we can hear is our own.

The Church must constantly welcome new voices, new insights, and thus the ancient virtue of hospitality becomes so critical.  We need the constant reminder that our idea of sanctification, of holiness, does not offer the exclusive path to God.  The Spirit works through us, but can work through those who differ from us, too.  Here, we learn the virtues of patience and forbearance.

I welcome this wisdom, and hope you do, too.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

The Bread That Came Down From Heaven

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:51-58.

This week, the Lectionary’s Gospel passage offers us Jesus’ assurance, an assurance linking the Eucharist to eternal life.  Before we get there, however, it’s worth putting this text in a bit of context.

First, let’s look at the historical context.  In first century Palestine, bread wasn’t simply one of the four basic food groups, something nice to eat with a hearty meal.  More often than not, bread was the meal.  In other words, bread generally stood between a person a starvation; bread was the difference between living and dying.

If we turn to the textual context, we find earlier in the same chapter that Jesus fed the five thousand with a meal of bread and fish. I think John uses this passage to explore the truth and the mystery of the loaves and the fishes.  In the midst of want and hunger, Jesus used bread to teach the crowd about God’s abundance and love for them. Within the same chapter, Jesus appears to the disciples who are terrified when they see him walking on water. So, within this chapter, we see Jesus taking away our hunger and our fear.  Now, we come to today’s reading.

Jesus assures the crowd that he will “abide in” those who partake of his flesh and his blood. It’s pretty clear that the Christian community in which John dwelt had an established Eucharistic tradition, and John’s Gospel links the Eucharist to  Jesus making a permanent home with those who share in that great feast. Through the bread and the wine, we invite Jesus into our lives and take comfort in His promise that He will remain with us through all the things that frighten us: hunger, frailty, and even death.

Six times within this chapter St. John uses Greek word καταβαινω, which we translate as “came down” or “descend.” John’s Gospel presents us with a deeply incarnational narrative:  the story of God coming down to dwell with us in the flesh. That incarnational theology is deeply tied to the Eucharist:  Jesus said “This is body.  This is my blood.”  This isn’t philosophical or ethereal; Jesus invites us to share in a real feast. He invites us to feast on His life.

Jesus invites us to share in a deep sacramental mystery.  Somehow, our new life (abiding with Him) lies in that bread and that wine. I don’t pretend to understand how this works but as C.S. Lewis observed in Letters to Malcolm, “The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.” I pray we all take and eat of the Living God who came down and dwelt among us, and who abides with us still.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

The Feast of the Holy Mother

*Welcome, Mary, sister in faith;
the Lord has surely chosen you.
The life leaps within me
to herald the fruit of your womb
which is Jesus!
Who am I
that the mother of my Lord
should come to me?
Pray with me now,
and always.
Amen.

*Weep, Mary, a mother’s tears.
Your son must die,
thrust high in agony.
Alone in suffering
separated from His Father’s smile
by sin we laid upon Him.
Blessed in He
who comes in the name of the Lord.
Now, Mary, be mother to John
and all who will lean, like him,
close to the heart of Christ,
and watch with Him in the hour of death.
Amen.

*You, Mary, who knew His grace,
now you’re with the Lord.
Blessed is any who walks with God,
then is not here, but taken–to Jesus!
Hold us, Mary, at peace with God;
join with the prayers of the penitent,
now and at the gate to life.
Amen.

I found this prayer, this little liturgy, in the Celtic Book of Daily Prayer.  It seemed appropriate, because today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of Our Lord. Mary has always held a special place for members of the Dominican Order, dating back to very early in the Order’s history. So, I thought I’d make a few observations about Mary.

First, Mary seems to offer a special place of devotion for those who’ve had their hearts broken.  One can’t look at the Pieta without immediately recognizing Mary’s special understanding of heartache and sorrow. The Holy Mother also  speaks gently to those who understand the risk of faith.

When Mary answered “Yes” to God’s call, she laid aside her plans for her life and undertook the risk of an unwed pregnancy.  In first century Palestine, that kind of thing could get you in trouble; it could get you killed. Mary (who would have been known as Miriam) thus teaches us about allowing God to interrupt your plans, and willingly accepting the cost of becoming God’s instrument. She showed us how to trust God and how to live without fear.

For many of us, Mary serves as the gateway to, and the icon of, the Incarnation.  If God’s decision to walk among us as a man was indeed the pivotal point of human history, it was Mary who cleared that path.  She offers us the key to Jesus’ full humanity.  Her tears on Golgotha demonstrate that this was no metaphor and no mere spiritual apparition.  Hanging on that Cross was Mary’s little boy whom she had raised from His birth in a stable.

The Holy Mother also teaches us a good deal about the faithful response to mystery.  When Gabriel told her of God’s plans, she didn’t ask a lot of questions.  She didn’t need to understand what happened at Cana; she simply witnessed it.  I’m fairly confident Mary didn’t understand the need for the crucifixion or how the Resurrection changed the world. I doubt she had a firm grasp of the Pentecost.  And yet, there she stood: a witness (martyr in the Greek) staring across the precipice of the greatest mysteries of our faith.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to Mary as the Theotokos (the God-bearer).  Mary teaches us all about the importance of bringing Christ into the world, of being pregnant with the message of the Kingdom.  I pray we all can bring God into a world which needs Him now as much as it ever has. I know she will join in that prayer.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Living In Love

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

The New Testament reading from the Lectionary is taken from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Most scholars date this letter between 80 and 100 A.D., as the Church is maturing and struggling to practice a Christian life in community. The writer (perhaps Paul or perhaps one of his disciples) is deeply concerned with the notion of relationships, and the idea that our relationships with each other mirror our relationships with God.

The lesson begins with the notion of truth, of “putting away falsehoods.” Deception inhibits any chance for real love, and dealing with each other honestly provides the foundation for our relationship with God.  The call to the Christian life is more than a call to avoid lying or manipulation; God calls us to live our lives transparently.

Ephesians offers a unique theology behind this call to the truth–not simply that deception makes God angry or will keep us out of heaven.  Rather, Christ calls us into the truth because our lives are intertwined, because we are each other’s limbs. Deception infects the entire body, of which we are a part.  By setting aside falsehood and deception, therefore, we avoid self-mutilation, the destruction of the body of which we are a constituent part.

Ephesians then warns us against anger, and against allowing it to fester. The text cautions us against letting the sun go down on our anger because allowing resentment to build up makes “room for the devil.”  In my family, we used to joke about Irish Alzheimer’s:  that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.  Ephesians cautions us to work out our difficulties with our brothers and sisters quickly, before the infection of rage and resentment begins to spread.

The writer of Ephesians cautions us about our speech, warning us to avoid quarreling and slander.  The language of encouragement should provide the fundamental grammar of Christians. Rather than gossip, criticism or idle speech, we should immerse ourselves in the vocabulary of comfort and inspiration. We must all become wildly proficient in the language of blessing.

Ephesians then directs us:  “be kind to another.” There’s nothing new in this message; Jesus gave the same direction regularly. For the Christian, compassion and forgiveness are the fundamental currency of our economy. Grace must become our lingua franca: the basis of all our relationships. The text calls us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with each other.  We are called into a kind of profligate, extravagant love in Christ.  As the Dalai Lama has said:  “Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”

The Letter to the Ephesians teaches us about the profound correlation between this new relationship the early Church had discovered with Christ and the everyday, concrete relationships in the world.  It teaches that we can never divorce the our spiritual lives from our workaday associations in our families and communities.  Authentic Christian spirituality is never simply ethereal or private: we live it out every single day, with every person we meet and with every word we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

St. Dominic’s Day

A man who governs his passions is master of his world. We must either command them, or be enslaved by them. It is better to be a hammer than an anvil.
–St. Dominic

Dominic was born in 1170 in Caleruega which is located in Spain. When he was older he studied the arts and theology in a Spanish university. When he was 25 years old he became a priest and followed the rule of Saint Benedict. In 1215 he and six followers founded a monastery in Toulouse. In 1217 he got the Pope’s permission to start the “Order of Preachers” (now known as the Dominican Order). Dominic made his headquarters in Rome in the year 1215. He then moved to the Church of San Nicolo Bologna on December 12. He later died on August 6, 1221 when he was 41 years old. Saint Dominic was canonized on June 12, 1954 by Pope Pius XII.

When Saint Dominic started the new order he must have had a lot of trust. He had to have trust in God because He has a plan for everyone. He also needed trust in his followers because when you work on creating a new order you become a family. He teaches us that you should have trust in others around you and in God. Dominic also preached about the rosary and made it popular in his time. He taught us to pray the rosary. “Arm yourself with prayer rather than a sword; wear humility rather than fine clothes,” he said.
— Mariana Haghighat

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of my Order, Dominic de Guzman. He founded a religious order based upon four pillars: prayer, study, community and ministry. Having just taken vows of simplicity, purity and obedience, I’ve promised to build my life around these four columns of spirituality. In doing so, I’ve joined a long line of my Dominican brothers and sisters, a line that would include St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Rose of Lima, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart. As Spain moved into the New World, it was a Dominican friar (Bartolomé de las Casas), who fought against the atrocities committed against the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists.

So, I’ve joined into this Order with a wonderful tradition and a foundation built upon those things I hold dear. What, in the name of heaven, do I do now?

God’s peace,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Post Scriptum:  For all of you who have offered up your prayers and support, I am eternally grateful.  I thank God, and I thank you.