Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34]

Our readings today describe our world to a T: disunity, fear, insecurity, bad leaders, exploitation, enmity, injustice, scattered populations, carelessness, alienation. Not only our global world, but maybe our personal worlds, too: the family, the workplace, and our most important relationships. But they describe the worlds of Jeremiah nearly 3000 years ago, and of Paul and Jesus nearly 2000. Has nothing changed?

The last of ancient populations of ancient Syria are fleeing by the tens of thousands right now and the United States could not be more divided over fundamental things, like life, gender, race, science, and religion. Hate killings in Charleston and Chatanooga. The divide between rich and poor is deeper and more cynical that ever, and children off to camp carry weapons in their backpacks.
"Come away to a deserted place and rest a while."

So one Wednesday evening last week members of Emmanuel AME in Charleston gathered with their pastor for refreshment in each other and the Word of God. But even there the enmity entered and the dividing wall seemed to rise higher than ever before.
At the bail hearing for racist killer Dylann Roof relatives of five of his victims addressed the killer: "We have no room for hate, so we forgive," and, "Hate won't win," was their forceful proclamation. Where did that come from in this closed world of revenge and lack of care?

Even in the prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading today, the very Lord who utters woes himself accepts the blame: the lands to which I have driven them. In Christ he gives the solution, no contending, no crying out, as we heard at Mass yesterday, but the peace who in his flesh makes enemies friends, those far off, near, giving all together access in one Spirit to the Father. The Cross of Christ is forever, in the words of T. S. Eliot,

When Christians gather on Sunday they are those crowds who hastened to the place
where Jesus would be; Jesus' teaching them many things is the proclamation of the Word of God and its unfolding in the homily; his feeding them with five loaves that we will hear about over the next few Sundays is the Eucharist, the re-presentation of Calvary, the pledge in his own flesh and blood of the love of him who loves his own until the end. If receiving the host we let it work in us forgiveness, we will effectively counter and overcome the hate and greed of our worlds, the global one and the personal ones. We will be a deserted place, still and silent, where the fearful and confused can rest and heal.

In a recent interview the Patriarch of Antioch of the Syro-Orthodox Church said, "Like Jesus, we may be called to suffer martyrdom, and when it happens, Christians do not organize protests against martyrdom. Martyrs are not defeated people. Martyrdom is a mystery of love freely given." Much more accessible to us is this word from Pope Francis's recent encyclical: "Saint Thérèse of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture that sows peace and friendship," what Francis calls the "culture of care."

We, through Christ, the Church, his Body, are God's solution to the world's hunger for Beauty and wholeness, sanity and peace. We are not told any of the "many things" Jesus taught the crowds. We can guess, though. He talked about a tiny seed sown in a huge field, wheat growing among weeds, a hidden treasure, salt, and a candle in the darkness. He said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed those who suffer persecution for justice's sake." And he taught them to pray, "Forgive us, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 12:13-19; Rom 8:26-27; Mt 13: 24-43]

Several years ago, there was a nest of owls in the pine tree near a stairwell in our enclosure. It was a great source of interest as the baby owls emerged from the eggs, started to grow as they were being fed by their parents, and finally flexed their wings and began to fly around a bit on their own. But one day, the parent owls destroyed the nests, and the young owlets were left to fend for themselves. Welcome to adulthood. The human species has a more gradual process of separating young from their parents. Children start to become aware of mistakes and flaws in their parents: they aren't omniscient and omnipotent after all. A painful process of separation and disillusionment begins. Necessary to attain mature independence, but painful because of the awareness that a precious sense of belonging has disappointed one. It was flawed. It was not all that we had hoped. It was not what we were led to believe.

While we set out from home in the hopes of finding a more perfect solution (an ideal family, spouse, or community, a holy church, a responsive political party), we soon discover that life has a great capacity to disillusion and disappoint. It can start out well, but eventually flaws that we had not seen begin to emerge. The world is full of Macbeths and Othellos, sympathetic characters whose ambition and jealousy become evident in the light of conflict and struggle. We had hoped for so much more from them. Virtues and strengths are driven by shadowy energies rooted in ruthless egotism. We find our own best efforts weighted down by self-defeating and self-destructive pulls that escape our conscious direction. We disappoint ourselves. We are flawed.

We are ready to join the chorus of slaves in today's gospel parable. “Did you not sow good seed?” The sowing was flawed. Weeds are coming up. We are as outraged at the tragic flaws which keep emerging in our lives: young fathers suddenly killed, children abused, innocent people slaughtered by terrorists or angry teenagers, corruption in all social levels. Each one of us knows personal scenes where the justice and wisdom of God seem mockingly inoperative in the narratives of our lives. There is a primordial cry of our disillusionment, disappointment, and anger at the deeply flawed condition in which we have been placed. The anger is so deeply felt that the slaves consider themselves to be on an equal level with the householder. They are accusing the householder of mismanagement, of incompetency. What kind of a householder would be so careless? What kind of a God is so indifferent? Obviously, this matters to the slaves. Their share of the harvest is reduced. Their own efforts are sabotaged. They will be known as employees of a flawed and foolish master. They are employed by a master who does not care.

“Do you want us to pull out the weeds?” We have remedies. We can eradicate, exterminate, eliminate, excommunicate, separate, isolate. We can reduce the field to a monoculture. We can turn our anger to productive outlets. It seems to be the obvious solution. It seems to have no flaws. But the frontal attack on weeds, on evil, on what is distasteful, on what is foreign shows itself to be corrupted by the same evil it seeks to eliminate. It lives off the violence it abhors in others. Evil seems so seductive and alluring that we fear being in its presence. We identify it with some of its forms and seek to eradicate them, while we invite others into our home. We affirm our justice and righteousness while ignoring our own active complicity with evil. The roots of the wheat and weeds are entangled beneath the surface of what we consciously see.

The answer of the householder is “No.” Simply “No.” Stop. You are still dealing with illusions. Real disillusionment might have clarified your vision, but you still do not understand reality as it is. You are seeking a field without flaws, a perfect mate or community, a perfect church. Power and strength are not coexistent with leniency, clemency, mercy or kindness in our minds. One or the other. Here, I think, we have the collision of visions and understandings of the Kingdom which this parable means. Our vision of the Kingdom is still not God's vision. We do not see how deeply rooted our “natural reactions” are in the violence and exclusiveness of the flaws we find so unjust when they bring us suffering. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.” When the householder tells the slaves to “let them grow together”, the Greek word in the text is “aphete” which means “let, allow, remit, tolerate, forgive, let us see.” This is no passive indifference, but the patience which attends with care to the growth of what may have flaws, but which has the potential to bear fruit in the Kingdom (and not necessarily in the world's marketplaces). This is the patience of God “calling us to repentance” (Romans 2:4 and RB Prologue :37). “You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins” (Wisdom 12:19). Repentance is this “allowing, letting” the mercy and kindness of God bring healing and life to those flaws and sins which seem so intolerable to us that we cannot admit them. Repentance means tolerating the intolerable in ourselves and others. The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. Repentance is opening our weakness, our flaws, our sins to the Spirit who aids us. He doesn't excommunicate or eradicate us. He is the care of God. He lets us grow “according to God's will.” Maturing, growing up and becoming adult is a necessary pain, for the child and for the parent. What is most precious in this belonging grows in a hidden an obscure way through the disillusionment that “allows” a clearer vision of the Kingdom.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 12:13-19; Rom 8:26-27; Mt 13:24-43 ]

The people of the French mountain village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon are remembered for their great heroism during the Second World War: At risk of their own lives, the villagers rescued some five thousand Jewish refugees from the Nazis. Pastor Andre Trocme and his wife urged their congregation to make Chambon a city of refuge. They did so despite the fact that the punishment for sheltering Jews was death. They did so even though the villagers themselves were desperately poor. At various times, government and even church authorities ordered Trocme to turn over any Jews hiding in the village. He refused, and was himself thrown into prison. His cousin Daniel Trocme, who also rescued Jews, was executed in a concentration camp. Other villagers also died while protecting Jews. By the war’s end, Le Chambon was known to be a city of refuge, and the Trocme’s were recognized by Holocaust memorial groups for their heroism.

The wheat and the weeds grew up together. Le Chambon and the Trocme family are still there; the Nazi’s and their death camps are all gone.

Both weeds and wheat are nourished by the rain that the Father sends on the good and the bad. Both wheat & weeds love and grow toward the sun that the Father makes to rise on the righteous and the unrighteous, (Mt 5:45).

The difference between weeds and wheat lies in their reaction to the coming of Jesus Christ. It lies, too, in the fruit that each bears, in what each contributes to the common good when it reaches maturity. The fruit one bears in maturity is the result of the object of one’s faith, hope, and love. That is strongly illustrated in the story of the Trocme’s and their congregation and the Nazi’s and their collaborators. The object of one’s faith, hope, and love determines how one will orient the self toward the sin of the world: scapegoating. Scapegoating is a community’s way of restoring unity and peace when its individual members are overcome by anxiety, envy and resentment. A person or group of people are blamed and expelled, marginalized or, more commonly, murdered. Thereby, peace and unity are restored. Scapegoating is our unholy communion. It is the peace that the world gives in contrast to the peace of Christ we will give one another shortly. Scapegoating is the seed the enemy or evil one spread. He spread it at night so no one would recognize that they had it. He made it seem natural and right.

The weed Jesus was referring to in His day was, when ripened, slightly poisonous causing dizziness and sickness and yet having a habit-forming effect. The seed gives rise to the poison of blaming; it has dizzying effects as we try to keep track of all who are to blame for our personal and communal shortcomings. It makes us spiritually sick because it lifts our spirits with a lie. Worst of all, in spite of these effects, it is habit forming. In other words, we can rely on it for relief, but we can’t trust it for salvation from our shared condition of brokenness. At some level we each know that; it makes us restless. To ease the restlessness we simply follow the crowd.

The two main characters in today’s gospel parable are not the wheat and the weeds. First, they are the servants who hastily want to rid themselves of what is unattractive or burdensome in their world. The anxiety of the servants would lead them to scapegoat, to pull the weeds too soon. They would use evil to drive out evil, which is what the enemy wanted. That would ease the servant’s anxiety, but do nothing for the purposes of their master.

The other main character in our parable is the Master; the farmer who sowed the good seed. That is Jesus. He will eventually become the scapegoat so He tells this parable from the viewpoint of the victim. There is a difference between the object of the farmer’s faith, hope, and love and that of the servants; the difference is in who they trust.

Trust means that what the community, or its leader, speaks in favor-of or against has great influence on the kind of person we become. The Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is talking about is for those who receive it like a child, (Mk 10:14-15). A child is naturally oriented to goodness because he is totally dependent. Dependence is the pre-condition for trust. Our dependence — our creaturely status—is precisely what scapegoating allows us to deny. From the beginning, our understanding of good and evil, or what matters and how much, depends on who we trust. We trust the one in whom we find goodness.

The villagers of Le Chambon trusted Pastor Trocme. More importantly, they trusted the God for whom he spoke. They did not merely rely on God and Trocme. We can rely on someone for a specific function such as being on time or completing a job. We rely on them to do our will, but yet we may not trust them. In deciding upon whom to rely we—in a sense—look down upon them and make a judgment as to their merit based on their past performance. We can be faulted for poor judgment.

In trusting someone we, like a child, look up from below. We learn from the other what the world is about. We come to believe that doing his will is to our good. We let him be the judge of our actions…and the actions of others. The one we trust is obligated to be trustworthy “lest a millstone be tied about his neck…” (Mt 18:6). In teaching us to let the weeds grow, Jesus—like Abraham and Isaac—is showing us His trust that whatever comes from the Father is to be accepted. As the psalmist says, “I trusted even when I said, I am sorely afflicted…” (Ps 115:1). This is the prayer of the victim.

Over the last two thousand years scapegoating, as the peace that the world gives, has been gradually losing its effectiveness in the world because of the gospel. Trusting God has steadily and consistently brought peace to those who trust. How do we get this trust and peace? A sure sign of trust is “asking.” In a few minutes you will be given the peace of Christ. It will not be given as a personal possession; that would breed mistrust and conflict. Fr. Brendan will invite you to pass it on to one another. All you have to do to receive this peace is turn to your neighbor. That turn is how we ask. You will have trusted. When Jesus said that He gives peace not as the world gives it, but as His own (Jn 14:27), He is saying that trust is not of our own making; it is given. +

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary time

[Scripture Readings: Gen. 18: 1-10a; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42 ]

One of the more consistent traits of human nature is that when we are continually exposed to some stimulus we tend to push it into the background of our awareness. In some cases this can become an automatic response and we do not pay enough attention to what we are doing to consider what the consequences of our behavior may be. As a literate society we are surrounded by words. There are so many words that impinge on our consciousness we can too easily push words to the margins of our awareness without discriminating between which are important and which are trivial. In addition because of abuses in communication some people have become skeptical in regard to practically everything they read or hear. That this can have negative consequences on how we conduct our day to day affairs is obvious enough. Since words have been the privileged means of God’s communication with us, our attitudes toward words also affect growing in our relationship with God and living according to the teaching of God’s words.

St. Paul summarized the ministry that he received from God as a call to fulfill God’s word for the sake of his body, the Church. In our different ways each of us shares in a similar call to fulfill God’s word in our situations. In order to do this we need to be attentive to God’s word and not simply push it into the background of our awareness along with so many other words that we hear and read. With Mary in this morning’s gospel we need to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his words and ponder his words. However, as with so many of the gospel narratives we are not simply one or another of the actors. I submit that we are all both Mary and Martha. It is true that some of us are more reflective and some more active, but because one these traits is more typical of us, we are not exempt from the other.

There is no lack of instructions in the scriptures that tell us of the necessity of being of service to our brothers and sisters. However, we can become so preoccupied with service we neglect listening to the words of Jesus. To the extent that we do this, it will reduce the effectiveness of our service at best, and perhaps render it completely ineffective. There are also plenty of passages in the scriptures that tell us that it is not enough to simply listen to God’s word; we need to put it into practice. We fulfill the word of God that we hear by living according to it. God’s word to us is a call both to listening and to action. If we only do one while neglecting the other, we are not fulfilling God’s word.

Our example here as in all aspects of Christian living is Jesus Christ the incarnate Word of God himself. In spite of the crowds pressing in on him and the urgency of their needs, I submit because of the crowds pressing in on him and the urgency of their needs, Jesus routinely withdrew into solitude to be with his Father. Yet he did not remain in solitude. He revealed his Father’s word to him in his teaching and in his behavior with his disciples and with the crowds who came to him.

In an age of skepticism in regard to words, in many situations our most effective way of communicating God’s word will be to reveal it in our manner of life. This is within the capability of all of us. But in order to do this we need to join Mary at the feet of Jesus and listen to his words with our ears, our minds and our hearts. Then we can join Martha and fulfill God’s word in our service.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34]

Here’s a conversation you hear not too uncommonly between two monks. Each of them needs to leave the monastery and go into town for some necessity, but—there’s only one car and the two monks have different, completely unrelated errands to run in different places. “You go,” says the first, “Take the car. My business can wait to another day.” “Oh—but . . . “, the other says—”that doesn’t seem fair. You shouldn’t have to cancel your days plans on account of me—besides, you had the car signed out first.” “Well,” says the other, “I was really hoping to get to town today . . .” “Oh“, says the first, “then, you should take the car.” “But what are you going to do?” says the other. “I don’t know—I’ll work something out . . . I hope . . . ” This makes the other begin to feel uneasy. “Now, don’t be silly”, he says, “I won’t feel right about it. You go ahead and take the car—unless, unless . . . . you would be open to the two of us going into town together.” “That’s an idea.“, says the other, ” . . . but isn’t that going to mean you going out of your way?” “Well yes—actually. My business is on the other side of town, but really—it’s not a problem. We can go in together.” “That’s very kind of you. I would be very happy to get this taken care of, but not if it’s going to mess you up – wouldn’t you rather just take the car in yourself?

What’s happening in this conversation is that two people with a need are meeting, and each is very reluctant to be indebted to or dependent upon the other in order to get that need satisfied. Both monks are fine with the idea of taking the car into town together, just so long as doing so will not cause the other any inconvenience whatsoever, in which case, he would be indebted to him, or seen as having become dependent upon his kindness. They are talking about nothing; an insignificant little errand they need to run. There is nothing really at stake here—except the possibility that one or the other of them, might come out of this having received a favor from the other, and so of have to acknowledge his temporary state of helplessness.

My father who was a very intelligent and successful man, and who spent most of his life two or three steps ahead of most of the people around him, suffered from Alzheimers in his later years, and one day, got so disoriented while driving that he had no idea how to get home and became really, really frightened. He was finally forced to make a phone call to my mother and ask if she would come pick him up. It was hard for him to explain to her his predicament because he was crying; crying like a lost little boy. Mom, immediately got in the car; picked dad up; gave him a kiss and a big hug;took him back to his warm secure house and his favorite chair; made him an especially delicious supper; finished the evening off with a silly movie and, for about a week afterward, treated him like the King of Egypt—and, believe me, he loved every minute of it. Dad, in his hour of need, was given a feast; a really super abundant feast of love, support and encouragement by the people around him—once they realized that he was in need. That’s really all they needed to know. He was loved a lot, and nobody wanted dad to suffer needlessly. All he had to do was break down and make known to his family that he was really scared and felt completely helpless. That was humiliating and he was incapable of humiliating himself that way, until he got really, really scared. But once the cry for help was heard, the love and support started flowing toward him from all directions.

I suspect most of us, maybe men a little more often than women, are pretty guarded at moments when we feel helpless and dependent upon the kindness of others. We don’t like at all to be in that position, and we tend to go to great lengths to conceal from others those moments when, in some predicament, we feel quite lost at sea and completely unable to fend for ourselves.

Jesus is meeting people like that in this morning’s gospel. The people flocking around him for counsel, for knowledge and healing, or just some sympathetic listening; these suffering crowds who follow Jesus everywhere and scarcely give him an hours’ rest—these were simple country people. The rabbis they had at hand were not well educated. Those rabbis who were strong and capable and learned and in a position to help them lived far away in Jerusalem and had no wish to associate with them in any case. The crowds who gathered around Jesus were lonely people; disenfranchised, possibly frantic; maybe really really frightened and hopeless; quite incapable of helping themselves. And Jesus received them all. Jesus received them, even though he had just arranged with the disciples that he and they should enjoy a little well-deserved time of rest. So compassionate and forbearing and generous is Jesus toward these people that, he immediately abandons plans for the little vacation he and the disciples arranged for themselves. Once the cry for help is heard, the superabundant love of God begins to flow over them. Now, if Jesus in his humanity was so compassionate; so generous how much more compassionate, generous and loving is Jesus now; risen from the dead; seated at the right hand of the Father, with all power and dominion and glory given him by God—and all for our good. Cry to him brothers and sisters. Make known to Jesus your needs. He has given you the Sacrament of Reconciliation; the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, all sources of His superabundant love offered you for the asking. Ask Jesus for what you need while that precious breath that permits you to ask, is still in you.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis. 12: 13-19; Rom. 8: 26-27; Mt. 13: 24-43 ]

I expect that without too much difficulty we could all come up with a list of situations that we would like to change, but which we can’t do anything about. Their importance would probably range from situations that are simply matters of personal convenience and comfort to situations that are having a major negative impact on our wellbeing; or that involve important moral issues. It is frustrating in the extreme to see a situation that is seriously wrong and not be able to correct it. But that raises a question that perhaps we do not give enough reflection to: Do we really know what to do to correct a problem situation; or if we do, do we know when to correct it?

That is the question that the parable of the wheat and the weeds raises for me. The question may be obvious, but I find it helpful at times to take a closer look at what is obvious. The landowner’s servants knew what to do about weeds in the field. Obviously, you pull them up. But it was not obvious to them that in trying to correct the problem they might do more harm than good. The landowner knew what the problem was too, and he knew the cause of it. He also had the wisdom to see that the obvious solution might be self-defeating, and he had the patience to choose a solution that might go against conventional wisdom and that would require waiting until the time for the harvest.

What about you and me? Can you think of times when you were so frustrated with a situation that you went ahead with the first solution that came to mind, only to regret your impatience as soon as you saw the result? I can; more than I care to remember. We might think that if we had more power we would use it to do good, but power can be used and power can be misused. The news media present us daily with all too many situations where power is abused, ranging from interpersonal to international relations.

I don’t think the conclusion to the parable of the wheat and the weeds is that we simply stand back from situations that need to be corrected and let whatever happens happen. I have heard the parable used as an excuse for avoiding responsibility and doing nothing when something should have been done. However, it is a warning to be aware that misguided enthusiasm, no matter how well intended, can be self-defeating. If we take our call to follow Christ seriously, God is our model of how to use power. For God it is not a contradiction to combine the use of power with gentleness and kindness; although to those who are wise in the ways of the world that might seem self-defeating. To follow God’s example we need the humility to admit that our obvious solution to a problem may not be God’s solution. We need the patience to put a check on our impulsiveness and allow the Holy Spirit to reveal an appropriate solution and to reveal an appropriate time to act on our insight.

There are many situations in the world and in our immediate environments that need to be corrected, and we have the responsibility to do what we can to improve them; no matter how insignificant our contribution may seem. In order to be effective we need to allow God’s word to form our understanding and our actions. As always this is a call to humility and patience.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Gen. 18: 1-10a; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42 ]

One of life’s more frustrating experiences is being pulled in two or more directions at the same time. Sometimes this is a result of not using good sense and unnecessarily over committing ourselves. However, it can also happen that we are faced with choosing among a number of worthwhile activities all of which need to be done. No matter which we might choose there can be a lingering feeling that we have still not done our part.

It seems to me that our society does an effective job of making us feel guilty for what we haven’t done no matter what we have done. There are family responsibilities, work responsibilities, social responsibilities, civic responsibilities, and more. Ecclesial society is not free from this phenomenon. Are you helping the urban poor? What about the poor in Latin America or Africa? Are you involved in local church activities? What about being involved in politics in order to protect gospel values in governmental decisions? And by the way, are you spending enough time in prayer? Closer to home, monasteries can become very busy places too. I find it helpful from time to time to follow St. Bernard’s example as ask myself: Neil, why did you come here?

In reflecting on this morning’s readings it shouldn’t be difficult to sympathize with Martha. She was trying to fulfill the duties of hospitality with perhaps the same enthusiasm shown by Abraham, who is presented approvingly in the first reading. Jesus’ reproach may strike us as a little jarring. Rather than trying to convince ourselves that we should be Mary rather than Martha, I think it would be better to look at the Martha and Mary we all carry within ourselves. Like St. Paul we are all called to be servants of Christ’s body, the Church. But like Martha we can too easily lose our sense of priorities and try to do too much. Are we discerning what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, or are we simply deciding for ourselves what we think needs to be done and how it should be done?

Doing the work of God is not just a complicated task that calls for all the ingenuity we can muster in order to figure out what we are supposed to do. It is, as St. Paul reminds us, a mystery, and as a mystery it exceeds all the figuring out we could possibly muster. What we are called to do and how we are to do it will be revealed to us. Our first task is to listen attentively to God’s word in all the many ways it comes to us. We also need a humble and honest recognition of both our strengths and our limitations. There are more worthwhile activities that need to be done than any of us could possibly accomplish. Giving in to anxiety and trying to do too much will only prevent us from accomplishing the good that God is calling us to do. We would do well to follow Mary’s example and first welcome God’s word into our hearts and then we can be busy with the work God is calling us to do.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34]

Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to conquer the world, but he was finally defeated near the small Belgian town of Waterloo in 1815. His downfall actually began three years earlier when he invaded Russia. Marching slowly but steadily two thousand miles from Paris to Moscow, his army’s supply line was stretched to the breaking point. A bitterly cold Russian winter swept down on Napoleon’s soldiers. They were tired, freezing, and hungry. When the Emperor finally ordered a retreat, his decision came too late for the French army of 420,000 men. Snow and ice, starvation and disease, exhaustion and unrelenting attacks by the Russian forces decimated 300,000 his soldiers who died or were captured. Blinded by his overreaching military ambition and his desire to be a glorious Sovereign, Napoleon made a fatal mistake. He did not know when to step back and renew his strength.

After Jesus sent his apostles to preach repentance, to heal the sick, and to cast out unclean spirits, they were so successful that people followed them back to Jesus. They crowded around, leaving no leisure time for them even to eat. The last time it happened the relatives of Jesus tried to seize him saying, “He is out of his mind.” He was working too hard, racing the clock, living in a rush, trying to do more than time permits. It was a hectic life style with no time to rest. Jesus wanted some quiet time with his apostles, a solitary place where they could be alone for a while to renew their strength, just as people do today by going to a monastery for a few days, or even by joining one.

So they retreated by boat from the noisy crowd to find a solitary place. What could be more appealing to the apostles than this time alone with the Lord? But like Napoleon, they would not get away so easily. While they were rowing four miles across the lake, the crowd ran ten miles around the lake shore, gathering even more people as they went, and reached the place first. When the boat arrived at the distant shore it was no longer a solitude. The crowd was even bigger than before. The apostles could not hide their irritation and finally said, “Send them away!” And why not? A few hours ago Jesus took flight from many of these very same people. It was his idea to leave them behind. Jesus and the twelve would get run down if they stayed wound up. Resting and rising, sleeping and working, business and vacation belong to the natural rhythm of life. Napoleon neglected it and his dreams of sovereignty over many nations perished.

But for Jesus sovereignty over people and nature was not a goal to be achieved. It was a reality to be revealed. Under his rule all things work together for good, even when the balance of life is disrupted by a hectic life style, even when the personal needs and desires of those who love God are frustrated. By seeking time to eat and rest and pray Jesus taught us the wisdom of stepping back to renew our strength. But often responsibilities, people’s demands, unexpected circumstances, even war, sickness and death disrupt our lives. Jesus is about to show that the Providence of God is able to bring good out of everything that happens in the hectic lives of those who love God and entrust what happens to him.

Jesus did not react with irritation and impatience when his retreat to a lonely place did not go as planned. He felt pity, compassion, the kind of love a mother experiences for the children of her womb. So, tired as he was, Jesus began teaching them at great length. When evening came he showed how God’s reign can bring great good out of such a hectic, demanding situation. Jesus and the apostles wanted to find a lonely place to eat by themselves. They ended up by eating with more than five thousand people. It was a miracle that foreshadowed the mystery of the Eucharist. In the Providence of God even the frustration of our expectations and desires can work for good when we live with love under reign of his will.

In monasteries we try to live a balanced life of prayer, reading and work together. But even here our relationships and our occupations can become hectic! Things don’t always go the way we want. Sometimes newcomers can’t adjust to this life because they want to be sovereigns governed by self-will. Their dreams of becoming monks will perish as surely as Napoleon’s desire to be Sovereign Emperor. In years past, Fr. Maurusand Fr. Joseph Knapp were novice masters. The notes they wrote about postulants and novices who left the monastery are a litany of men who failed to persevere for want of a little more courage, a little more patience and trust in God. They write: Michael1 is sincere but hard headed; the brother next to Bernard got on his nerves; John left in a rage today over a delay in reception of the novice’s habit; Edward was afraid of farm animals; George left to enter the Carthusians-now he’s married; Raymond became intoxicated and left the next day-a real bum; Clarence is frequently crying-kissing statues-saying he trusts no man; our life was too strenuous for Richard; Kieran has illusions that the communists are attempting to persecute him; David is lazy-self-willed; Charles has a hard time getting up in the morning-he has no relish for this life; Norman finds everything hard and boring; Joseph was a good man with a strong back but a weak head; Francis left the day after arriving; Matthias has habitual loud belching and nervousness; Gary was very anxious over his money; Patrick’s left for the Carthusians, but didn’t stay; Andrew is not submissive; Edmund is scattered brained-lazy-but a good boy;  Gerald has uncontrolled fits of quiet laughing and lacks the spirit of sacrifice; James finds obedience too hard, he went to Grand-Chartreuse; Larry found the abbey too cold in the month of June; Peter is a good boy but without much piety; Philip is arrogant and over-bearing; Daniel wants to apply to the Carthusians; Ryan refused to reveal his age; Chris is scrupulous-not at peace; John experienced dryness at prayer; Alex concealed that he was on parole; Donald left for the Camaldolese; Herbert mumbles and shakes in choir; Lawrence decided to seek greater sanctity elsewhere. We can’t persevere in our Christian vocation or in monastic life by our own will power, but only by the grace of God, by letting go of self-will to live with love under the reign of God. St. Benedict wisely writes, “If a certain strictness results for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commands with unspeakable sweetness of love(Prologue Holy Rule of St. Benedict). May we be steadfast, asking the Lord to bring good out of our hectic lives, even out of the bad things that happen to us and to those we love. By patience we will share in the dying and rising of Christ.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Gen 18: 1-10; Col 1: 24-28; Lk 10: 38-42]

In his Rule, St. Benedict ungenerously describes the characters of monks with whom the abbot will have to deal: the undisciplined and restless; the docile and patient; the negligent and disdainful; the evil, stubborn and arrogant. We have a house full of the same kinds of monks. Although we usually prefer to use different words to describe our characters: introverted or extroverted; cheerful or moody. But we start developing a character more quickly than we can walk and its main shape is in place by 5-7 years of age. The character we developed and adopted in our home environment we carry over into every other social environment. Modes of behavior and reaction are “second-nature” to us. The question is: Is it our true nature, or our whole nature?

We expend a great deal of energy in maintaining and defending this character. It is the role we plav in society and the world. We can assume a heroic stance or a martyr’s stance. We are engaged in maintaining and supporting a total world-view in which our character has a vital role to play. –Even when no one else seems to understand or when everyone else is goofing off. When this role becomes too burdensome, we slip into feelings of jealousy or resentment, into self-pity.

In the Gospel today, Martha gives voice to these feelings. Everything is succinctly condensed in her little speech: the feeling of being neglected, overburdened and used, isolated and abandoned. She even manages to splash a little blame around. “Lord, do you not care? My sister has left me by myself to do the serving.” She has no trust that the Lord sees what is happening and just in case he isn’t sure what to do, she has a suggested plan of action: “Tell her to help me.” It is the world around us that needs mending and salvation. Echoing our own inner beliefs, Martha is utterly convinced of her own rightness.

There is something much deeper than a scene of domestic turmoil here. Luke isn’t just interested in immortalizing poor Martha in a frenzied and harried moment when she “lost it.” Luke has been presenting a chain of parables, and this scene is more a parable than an historic event. Last Sunday, we heard Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite were conscious of fulfilling their religious roles in passing by a fellow Israelite who had been beaten and left for dead. The shocking point of the parable was that a Samaritan, the least expected and least likely, person to stop, did in fact help the man. A few chapters later on in the Gospel there is the parable of the Prodigal Son. We can be shocked at the younger son’s irresponsibility and wantonness and at the father’s forgiveness and generosity. We can understand the elder son’s complaint : “All these years I have labored for you, and you never once gave a party for me and my friends.” But this complaint comes very close to Martha’s complaint. They both rise from the same sense of injustice and injured pride. Both have strong characters and have been responsibly fulfilling their roles.

When we return to the scene of today’s Gospel, we should be aware of the shocking setting in which it is placed. It would be unheard of in the Mediterranean world for two women to have an unrelated man in their house with no mention of a chaperone. And Mary’s position is even more shocking. She has stepped out of the role of a woman (to serve and prepare the meals) and taken the place of a male disciple — sitting at a close and intimate proximity to the Lord.

The response of Jesus to Martha does not enter into her world-view of the situation. It undercuts it totally and suggests that she is missing the point. What is the real source of Martha’s suffering? The role she is filling, while necessary and noble, is not meeting a deeper longing she has. Something of her real self is demanding attention, a self that is broader and more complete than the role which is consuming all her energy. “One thing is necessary.” We should not be too quick to label just what that one thing is: “prayer”, “discipleship”, “contemplation.” What is the “one thing” which completes our being, which “makes us perfect and whole in Christ”( Colossians 1:28)?

Mary had made a choice and stepped outside her social roles. The presence of the Lord totally absorbed her attention. To welcome a guest involves a total reorganization of one’s life patterns. Everything becomes centered around the guest. In the first reading, Abraham totally devotes his life and possessions to elaborately welcoming the three mysterious strangers. Paul proclaims the mystery of God’s secret plan and will now revealed as “Christ in you, the hope for glory.” The real character of our lives is revealed in this mysterious guest who has chosen to dwell intimately in our hearts and lives. This is radically shocking, and undercuts the projects and justifications that we use to explain our lives. In exercising our ministries and bringing our gifts to Him, we receive our lives transformed in His one body, which is the Church.