Monday in the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Mi 6:1-4, 6-8; Mt 12:38-42

In both the Old Testament and New Testament a “Sign” is that which calls attention to God’s decision-demanding presence and actions. It need not be described as miraculous.

Micah points to God’s decision-demanding presence and action in the Exodus.

Jesus indicates His impending passion, death, and resurrection. The decision demanded is conversion. What shall we put our faith in?

St. Benedict demands it (conversion) under the dura et aspera, under obedience in hard and difficult circumstances. In short, it is to love and obey God when suffering. Choices made in adverse conditions are true manifestations of the heart when they are made in allegiance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This results in our right relationship to Him. This is the Sign of Jonah.

The decision is not to accomplish conversion; it is to allow it. And so the capacity of the heart to value, when it is changed, is truly a gift from God. There is a shift from the shallower parts of the heart where things are valued by their agreeableness or satisfaction to self to the deeper parts where things are valued for themselves, as made and placed before us by God.

It has been said that there are two things a person should never undertake without a strong reason: marriage and religious profession. That strong reason—the decision-demanding Sign and the power to live it—should be gratitude for one’s personal exodus.


Monday in the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings:  Ex 14:5-18; Mt 12:38-42

I first looked over today’s readings around the time of the passing of Fr. Neil. It struck me that these two readings would be appropriate at any monastic funeral. I would want them read at my own funeral. They sum up and verify the importance of a cold, snowy January night in 1991, a night I have never forgotten.

The book of Exodus was the first written in the Hebrew bible. It tells us that God revealed Himself to humanity through a three-fold event of bondage, liberation, and covenant. In short, God revealed Himself and we discovered Him through crisis.

Our ordinary existence is the opposite of letting things be the way they are. Ordinarily we attempt to subdue “what is” to the plans we have made for it. This comes from our will to control and our will to control governs our attitude toward everything. This will to control is our effort to avoid crisis. It explains not only the anti-religious attitudes we see in American society today, but also the resistance we experience in the spiritual life. It is the will never to be devastated. This will to avoid the upsetting did not work for the Israelites. It didn’t work for Jesus Christ. I ask any sister who has been here more than five years: Has it worked for you? Probably not! Had it worked for the Israelites we would never have discovered God. Had it worked for Jesus Christ we would not be saved. Had it worked for any sister who is still here, she would merely be a renter.  

You see, crisis and the experience of some measure of devastation make us receptive. And what it makes us receptive to becomes important… very important… even most important.

Receptivity is to an Other. In monastic life we are called to release control to a “Holy Leisure.” Leisure is the altering of the kind of person I am to be fully open—receptive—to the other. Contemplation is thought only of the Other and thus the only real leisure. It frees us from the bondage of self and its will to control. This leisure is what the Israelites found on the other side of the Red Sea and Jonah found when deposited on the shore. In both cases, though, it was short lived. Radical transformation of willfulness does not come about by accomplishment, but by suffering it. It happens by virtue of our being undone, overwhelmed by the very thing our will to control is supposed to avoid.And then something new that we did not know enough to want is put in its place. That’s what happened to me in 1991. That is the Sign of Jonah.

And so we surrender. Nothing less will do. Even if crisis never happens it is present as that which we spend our lives avoiding. So God gave us a symbol of our deliverance; of what He did for us and of His promise to go with us. He gave the Israelites and Jonah the Ark of the Covenant containing the rod of Moses (passed on to Aaron) to remind them of their bondage; an urn of manna to remind them of liberation(Manna represents the bread of freedom; their first taste of freedom after the unleavened bread of affliction was finished). And He gave them the tablets of the law to remind them of the covenant (Heb 9:4).

Our responses to shattering crises are decisive events of our lives because we decide to let ourselves be irreparably devastated. In other words, we undergo a profound change in our response to value, to what is important. The Israelites and Jonah discovered that the value quality of what is important-in-itself is independent of the experience that revealed it to us. It is important even if we can’t appreciate it. Appreciating it is the liberation. The Israelites found that this liberator God was also a Creator God and a Holy God. So does anyone He liberates through crisis. That experience of being raised to a new perception of value, of what matters most is more precisely the Sign of Jonah.

Our real liberation is from a life where importance is determined only by personal satisfaction or avoidance of crisis. Thus liberated we enter into a covenant in a community where we are graced to strive to fit our way of living to that which is ultimately important in Itself.  On that to which everything is owed, everything must be spent.