Third Sunday of Lent at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42
Again in Lent we have a gospel about conversion.
“Living” water was running water or spring water. It was greatly prized in Palestine where the most commonly available water was stagnant cistern water, the kind Jesus and the Samaritan woman are drawing. In literature of the time, running or living water was a sign of divine wisdom and teaching. Jesus offers that divine revelation and the Holy Spirit to the woman if she will accept it. If…. Accepting it is where conversion happens.
At first the woman debates with Jesus. She sees Him as a Jew, then as one possibly greater than Jacob, and then as a prophet. But then He gives her a sign: He tells her His inexplicable knowledge of her past and that of her people. (The five husbands are also understood as five gods Samaritans have worshipped in the past.) She hears this and she accepts Him and His words of life. Her relationship to Him is more personal. She now knows Him as messiah and ultimately as savior of the world. She has an interior experience that has changed her whole orientation to life. And the first thing she wants to do is evangelize. In the act of evangelizing she comes to full faith.
She runs to tell her community. They can see it in her eyes; they can see there is a difference in her. They run to see a person. They listen to Him. Many accept…they are converted. They tell the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word, for we have heard for ourselves and know…” Like John the Baptist in the previous chapter of this gospel, she decreases and Jesus increases.
This, and next week’s gospel of the man born blind, is typical of the way John warns of the danger of superficial and merely exterior shows of Christian faith. It is not just about being observant. This is important for us in monastic life. These gospels are about grace and deep conversion.
God’s grace as the effective ingredient in conversion means that it is not and cannot be a product of merely human knowing, choosing, or acting. IT IS A GIFT. It is entirely unmerited and unearned. The commandments, the gospels, and the Holy Rule also exist as gifts of God’s grace and as parts of God’s solution to the problem of human evil…including the evil in monks and nuns.
The gift we see in the Samaritan woman, and we’ll see next week in the man born blind, is a change of perception, a change in valuing, a change in what one sets her heart on.
The Samaritans ask Jesus to stay with them and he agrees. That is the definitive sign of their acceptance. To be in His presence, to hear His word and learn His way of responding to our own evil inclinations is how we accept conversion. Then our own struggles with evil help us empathize with others who struggle. As Merton has said, we no longer rely on admiring the moral distance between self and others. Around the Christ Who has told us everything we’ve ever done—and forgiven us—we can form a community of shared affection.
Third Sunday of Lent at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9 ]
The gardener said, “Sir, wait one more year, until I dig round the fig tree and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
As a young monk I saw the powerful effects of fertilizer. One day a lay brother novice drove a full manure spreader into Br. Placid's organic vegetable garden. Having fun, the novice drove his tractor in a huge number eight. Rains came and soaked the land; the sun rose and warmed the ground. Soon the wheat sprang up, and where the tractor had circled, the sheaves of wheat grew taller and fuller in the shape of a giant number eight. Dung is repulsive, but it has the ingredients to produce good fruit.
St. Bernard writes, “We should not be repelled by its ugliness if we wish to make our land fruitful. I am occasionally obliged to hoe about certain trees and to dung them … This certainly is an unpleasant task, yet one I dare not neglect because … the unfruitful tree will suffer more from the axe than from the digging of the hoe; it has more to fear from fire than from dung. Accordingly, I am sometimes compelled to reprove and to scold.”1
When Queen Esther's people were in danger of a holocaust, she knew that her prayers would be more fruitful if she humbled herself before God, so she took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, utterly humbling herself. The Lord answered her prayer and saved her people (Esther 14:1-3).
I like to think about the value of sufferings and humiliations as a spirituality of dung. Like manure which is so repulsive, yet so fruitful, all sufferings, even little ones, have the potential to do enormous good. We know this from our Lord's own example, who saved us by suffering and dying on a cross. Yet, how often are we like the barren fig tree, failing to bring good fruit from all the unhappy things that happen to us?
Jesus teaches us that prayer is infallibly fruitful, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you” (Mt. 7:7). All prayers are answered with something good. It might not be the thing I asked for, but every prayer bears good fruit. Prayer is never wasted. The same is not true about suffering. Its fruitfulness depends on our willingness to offer it for the good of others or ourselves. When we do that, it becomes prayer, and God will infallibly bring good out of all the dung that enters our lives.
Every day we suffer many small things, and sometimes even big things. They are treasures that can make our lives much more fruitful, like the wheat that grew stronger and fuller where it was fertilized with dung. Even a little headache, or a small irritation or a minor inconvenience is a treasure that can be offered as an intercessory prayer to help others, perhaps even saving someone from being lost forever. Every suffering is also a treasure that can be lost if we do not care enough about others to die for them. Let us not be like the rich man, who did not share his treasures with the poor man, Lazarus, who was starving outside the door of his house (Lk 16:19-31). Instead, let us be like the farmer who carefully gathers all the manure he can find to spread it on his fields. Then our sufferings will help the whole world and become for us a cause of supernatural joy. When you encounter people who are irritable, mean, grumbling like the Israelites and unhappy, they probably have not learned to bear good fruit from the unhappy things that happen in their lives.
One day the Cure of Ars, St. John Vianney, was groaning over and over. Knowing that he often suffered from intestinal pains, intense headaches, and other afflictions one of his parishioners asked what was wrong. He replied, “For three days I have had nothing to suffer. It's three days lost!”2
St. Bernadette of Lourdes, who was sick for long months in bed said, “I am happier in my bed with my crucifix than a queen on her throne.”3 How different are these responses of saints who make suffering fruitful, compared to the more common reactions of people to suffering as illustrated in a Charlie Brown story.
Lucy sees Linus holding up his hand and asks, “What's the matter with you?” He grieves, “I have a sliver in my finger.” Accusingly she says, “AH, HA! That means you're being punished for something! What have you done wrong lately?” He complains, “I haven't done anything wrong.” Lucy reasons, “You have a sliver, haven't you? That's a misfortune, isn't it? You're being punished with misfortune because you've been BAD!” Charlie Brown tries to intervene, but Lucy cuts him off saying, “What do you know about it, Charlie Brown? Linus has done something very wrong, and now he has to suffer misfortune! I KNOW ALL ABOUT THESE THINGS.” Just then Linus joyfully exclaims, “It's OUT! The sliver just popped right out.” Frustrated, Lucy walks away with a mad look on her face, and a gloating Linus says, “Thus endeth the Theological lesson for today.”
And what is our gospel lesson for today? Just this: it's not dung that's bad, but a barren tree that does not bring forth good fruit from all the manure of life.
Third Sunday of Lent at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9]
Our monastic way of life has many beautiful descriptions. It is called a school of the Lord’s service, a school of love, the angelic life, the house of God, and a life giving way. But did you know that St. Bernard calls it an earthly dunghill?
It’s a metaphor, of course, but accurately describes one of my first work assignments at New Melleray when I had to shovel out horse manure that was two feet deep in one of our barns. I thought I would die. Now, after living on a farm for over fifty years, I appreciate the nutrient value so rich in nitrogen, manifested by that pungent odor, and how necessary it is if a field is going to yield an abundant harvest.
St. Bernard uses the metaphor of a dunghill in a sermon for the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul1 in which he compares members of his community to trees in an orchard that God blesses with,
1. the free rain of his heavenly consolations
2. the hoe of discipline
3. and the dung of poverty and abjection
He writes, “Dung is not very attractive to the eye, but it is very useful for bearing fruit. We should not be repelled by its ugliness if we wish to make our land fruitful. For it is out of the ugly heap of dung which we spread on the fields that beautiful sheaves of golden corn spring up. … We who dwell in this earthly dunghill, (the monastery!), also have the rain of heaven given to us, i.e. devotion in prayer, joy in chanting the psalms, the sweetness of meditation, and the comfort of the Scriptures.”
We all like the blessings of summer rains, but the hoe of discipline and the dung of abjection are not so appealing. St. Bernard writes, “I am occasionally obliged to hoe about certain trees and to dung them… This certainly is an unpleasant task, yet one I dare not neglect because I am not ignorant that the unfruitful tree will suffer more from the axe than from the digging of the hoe; it has more to fear from fire than from dung. Accordingly, I am sometimes compelled to reprove and to scold.”
So, if the abbot or the novice director vigorously hoes the ground you stand on, and spreads manure knee deep, take heart, it means you’re not dead wood, but a tree worth fertilizing, a tree that is being prepared for a rich harvest. If he or she were to use less fertilizer, perhaps you would bear less fruit, or even be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I wonder if the child Jesus ever had to clean out the barn where Mary and Joseph sheltered their mule? Being a country boy, it wouldn’t have bothered him, he probably enjoyed spreading it around the fig trees in their yard and looked forward to the fruit it would produce.
Let us not be afraid of the hoe of discipline and the dung of correction. United with the heavenly rain of God’s blessings we, too, will bear much fruit.
1. St. Bernard’s Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, Vol. 3, The Carroll Press, Westminster Maryland, 1950, 201.
Third Sunday of Lent at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Ex 17:3-7, Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42]
When we are young, good homilies may convert us from our sinful ways. As we advance in age and virtue they can encourage us to run in the way of perfection. But when we are old, the main benefit is often that we wake up refreshed. I see that some of you are really old and looking forward to a long homily nap. So, here it comes.
In the story of The Little Prince,1 the charming boy from a tiny planet, meets a downed pilot in the middle of the Sahara desert. In one of their adventures, when all their water was gone, the little prince said, “I am thirsty, let’s look for a well.” The pilot thought it absurd to seek a well in the desert, but they started walking. The little prince continued, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” “It is true,” thought the pilot, for when he was a child living in an old house, he heard a legend about hidden treasure in his home. It cast an enchantment over the entire house. He said, “Yes, …what gives [things] their beauty is something that is invisible.” The little prince recalled that, “It is only with the heart one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” They walked all day under the hot sun and the boy grew tired. The pilot took him in his arms and carried him. Looking at his pale forehead, his closed eyes, his locks of golden hair that trembled in the wind, he said to himself, “What I see here is nothing but a shell. What is most important is invisible.” Yes, we ourselves and our whole universe are enchanted. All the more because God, a Treasure invisible to our eyes, is hiding within both. It is only with our hearts that we can see ourselves and others and the Spring of Living Water that has been poured into our hearts to keep us forever young.
When Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water, she sees a dry dusty traveler thirsting to drink deeply at her hands. She doesn’t see the Redeemer of the world, who created the heavens and all they contain, sitting at the well. Her heart has not yet been awakened. But the enchanted universe is about to reveal its hidden Treasure to the heart of one insignificant person. Like Maurice Ravel’s Bolero symphony, slowly rising in volume until it reaches a dramatic climax in a burst of music that is deafening to the ears, the history of God’s saving acts from Adam and Eve to Jesus is coming to a climax of revelation at Jacob’s well. The Son of God, the thirsty Fountain, the enchanted Spring, asks for a drink. Myriads of angels are present, wanting to quench Jesus’ thirst as they did after his forty days of fasting. But Jesus, the fountain of Uncreated Grace existing forever young, asks for a cup of water only from this foreigner, a woman living in dishonor. How odd of God to choose this non-Jew, this Samaritan! She talks about buckets and cisterns, about drawing water and having no husband, about prophets and mountains. He talks about the gift of God and living water, about eternal life and salvation, about worshiping the Father in Spirit and truth. She sees with her eyes, but Jesus sees with his heart what is most important. Then they connect. She says, “I know the Messiah is coming.” And he says, “I am he!”
The whole of creation has long waited to hear the divine name, I Am, on the lips of Jesus. Angels fall prostrate in adoration. Devils tremble and flee. The Samaritan woman, meeting Jesus in solitude, drinks deeply from the Spirit of wisdom pouring into her heart to know and love Christ. The eyes of her heart are enlightened with the hope to which he calls her, (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 1:17f). Grace wakens her heart and she sees what is most important. When the disciples return, they are amazed to see Jesus talking with a woman like that. They see with their eyes, not with their hearts. They do not see a child up for divine adoption serving a thirsty God. They do not see an apostle before the apostles. They do not see a bride with her Bridegroom. She came alone; she runs off and returns with a nascent church. Jesus and his disciples are welcomed into Samaritan homes to drink wine and share bread with them for two days. Jews with Samaritans! One after another Jesus wakens their hearts. After Pentecost, when persecution breaks out against Christian Jews in Jerusalem, they will flee to their friends, the Samaritans,2 for protection, especially to a woman who was the first, except for Mary, to find with her heart the mystery hidden in the enchanted universe for so many ages.
Sometimes it is the young who teach us to see with our hearts. Recently, another little prince, a compassionate six year old boy named Ryan Hreljac,3 begged his parents for $70. “Why?” they asked. He said, “Because some villages in Africa don’t have clean water. For $70 they can have fresh well water to drink.” His parents replied, “We can’t give you the money, but you can earn it by doing extra chores.” His face lit up and he went to work! Four months later he delivered $75 to a director who sadly told him that it would only buy a hand pump. To dig a well costs $2,000. “That’s okay,” Ryan answered, “I’ll do more chores.” That Spring and Summer he worked hard but was far from earning enough money until a TV station did a feature on Ryan’s well. Checks flowed in and a matching donation met the goal of $2,000. When he found out the well would have to be dug by hand because a drilling machine costs $25,000, Ryan, then seven, promised, “I’ll start raising money for a drill so you can dig many wells.” Again he went to work by speaking at service clubs. With wisdom surpassing the three friends of Job, he said, “God puts us on earth, but he doesn’t make us perfect on purpose. If he did we wouldn’t need to make the world a better place.” Money flooded in to buy a drill, and a neighbor paid the way to Uganda for Ryan and his parents so he could see his well. Approaching the village they heard chanting. Hundreds of villagers lined the road on either side clapping in unison and singing, “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan.” “They know my name!” he exclaimed. The director for Uganda laughed and said, “Everyone here knows your name.” His pen pal, eight year old Jimmy Akana, leapt into his arms, Africans with Americans! Within a couple more years, by 2002, Ryan was responsible for raising over $400,000 to drill wells in Uganda and Nigeria, all because he could see with his heart what is most important.
What happened to the pilot and the other little prince whom we left in the desert? They found the well, and the one who said, “I thirst,” drank deeply. Next evening he walked to a place in the desert, (he knew exactly where to go), and was bitten on his heel by a poisonous yellow snake. He seemed to die, and he did die. But at daybreak the pilot could not find the boy’s body. Then he knew the little prince had gone home. Somewhere up above, way far away, there is music and laughter in the stars, and our universe is more enchanted than ever by the Treasure hidden within it. And so are we by the true Prince hidden in our hearts as a Spring of Living Water. Can we see? Can we taste and see Jesus, the Living Bread hidden in the Eucharist? Can we see what is most important?