Let the Children Come

(Written on the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux)

“Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

How can children – or the child-like – have such a ready entrance into the Kingdom? To merit the Kingdom, don’t we have to learn countless behaviors, obey countless rules, accept countless beliefs and doctrines? And we understand hardly any of it. This is surely not child’s play!

I’ve been re-reading Michael Casey’s commentary on St. Benedict’s prologue to the Rule, The Road to Eternal Life. [Casey is a Trappist monk who has written several books on Benedictine spirituality.] I read it with a fellow Oblate about a year ago, but many passages strike me as brand new, now that I’m in a different place. Casey writes:

The Gospel is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News; it is something that excites, motivates, and encourages us. It is more than the dreary listing of a series of moral precepts. It is the promise of power that comes down from on high to give us the wisdom, understanding, and fortitude to put those impossible precepts into practice. . . .

To be guided by the Gospel is to be liberated from the tyranny of law and superego and to allow our lives to be more and more marked by the simplicity of love. It does not mean extracting moral precepts from the words of Jesus and erecting them into a code or canon of behavior. It means living as Jesus lived by moving toward the fullness of self-giving love that he manifested during his time on earth.

The French mystic and poet, Charles Péguy, tells the adult who is satiated with many possessions and opinions: “Go to school, children, and learn to unlearn.”

It is their humble status and attitude of simplicity that Jesus recognizes and loves in children. It is what Thérèse of Lisieux discovered in her “little way:” the child-like acceptance of God’s love as Jesus taught in his Good News. 13-Therese as Joan.jpg

You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must do to “get into Heaven,” all the prayers we must say, all the rules we must strictly follow, the spiritual and intellectual hoops we must jump through.  Thérèse, doctor of simplicity, was shown a way where one simply goes along with the parent in total trust. It has to be the way to a good place, for where else would a loving parent take him?  The child is happily amazed at everything it sees: it’s all new and splendid! For the child, everything is a kind of mystery, yet not imponderable, for the parent will explain all as they take the same path together, hand-in-hand. Being with the parent “excites, motivates, and encourages” the child. Simply having that loving attention is an incomparable delight.

The spiritual child does not need to understand complex theology that calculates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; does not need to impose difficult penances on herself; doesn’t fret unendingly on mistakes made; doesn’t need big, impressive words in speaking to the parent.

The child-like simply accepts that there are others on this same path and is happy to take the last place, since it’s by the parent’s side. Let the others run off to chase useless things! The blessed are content to grasp only one thing in their hand: the hand of God.

Yes, we know that this “spiritual” child may be a tad idealized, relative to the children we actually parent. The main point is that the child really has nothing of “value,” by worldly standards, to give the parent. It’s the other way around: the parent (or grandparent) takes delight in spoiling the child with a variety of gifts presented at every opportunity, reasonable or not. When we keep our eyes open and look up at our divine parent with expectation, hope and love, are we ever disappointed?

As years are added to my life-span, I’m taught new things. One gift is to see the importance of receiving. Yes, there are always things we do and give. But then, you see, it’s so easy to feel proud of ourselves. When we allow God to give, every day can be very much like a child’s Christmas. Gifts often come even frequently throughout the day. If now and then we’re given gifts that puzzle us, we’ll certainly be shown how they work and in time will come to appreciate them.

Being at the receiving end is especially important for those of us at the ageing part of life, because doing is getting more and more tricky. We have to learn how to accept help and care from others. We have to learn to ignore their look of exasperation as we ask them the same question for the umpteenth time. And when we tell them the same story for the third time in 10 minutes, maybe they have to learn how to pretend that they’re hearing it for the first time. Compassion is needed now, as those in their second childhood require the same patience we needed with our young ones.

Let all children come to Me.

First Steps

This has been a year of mixed blessings for Mt. Saviour Monastery. We lost two brothers, Steven and Justin. Yet I do question words like “lost.” That word in particular expresses the opposite of a monk’s goal, which is to be found by Christ and to remain where He is.

I guess the Holy Spirit wanted to balance things for us, so I was delighted to learn that we have not one but TWO new postulants. Seeing one of them at Mass recently, I put myself in his sandals (so to speak), wondering what thoughts might be going through his mind as he takes the first steps on his journey to intimacy with Christ.

I remember how I had first felt on my return to the Church, how my new beginning revived the zeal of my youth and my desire to share my renewed joy in the Faith. Certainly Christ, like a new postulant, must also have had feelings of happy anticipation.

Jesus was not a green lad when he started his ministry, but a mature man of 30. When he plunged into the Jordan, it was as one with a crowd of converts. Converts because they were responding to John’s urgent call to change their way of life. baptism-of-jesusJesus stepped into a river muddied by the many sins that had been washed from the throng of repentant men and women. I think he must have been stunned to discover that individuals like him also experienced this strong call to holiness. He must have said to himself: I want to be a part of this transformation! Maybe even more, since what I’m hearing within me, what I’m given to understand is how truly close God is to each of us on this earth, and that He longs to accompany us on this difficult journey!

I think with wonder about those long days and nights he spent in the desert, praying and pondering what it means to be a child of God, about what is meant by the teachings of Scripture, the writings and traditions of his people. Fully human, Jesus must have been in the position of questioning what God wanted of him. Whatever it was, he desired it with all his being, both human and divine.

The temptations
If he were to leave his family, his friends, and his livelihood, what would be left? He might be like some people who considered preaching as a career that could assure him of a comfortable living. Why, given his talent with words and speaking, he would never go hungry again, accepting invitations to dine at the homes of the wealthy. As the darling of the Creator, he would be assured of protection and safety all his life. He would be admired and praised by all. His fame would spread far and wide. He might even be made King! Knowing the ill-treatment meted out to the prophets, he might have thought he’d be the exception. His teachings would be so new, so transformative, that they would be universally accepted.

Isn’t this how we’ve felt when we started out in our careers, full of enthusiasm and self-confidence?

Our new postulants at Mt. Saviour must be close to half my age but hopefully with twice the wisdom. The teachings of Christ bring us feelings alternating between child-like joy and the certain dread of hardships, followed by their actuality. Since this was the road Jesus decided to take, we can expect the same as we aspire to holiness.

First steps are so crowded with hope and fear, along with the need for support, strength, and wisdom. Fortunately, our heavenly parent knows that beginners need much encouragement, so he fills them with a grateful wonder at having been called. This confidence is too soon followed by a sense of emptiness and doubt.

Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind and tried to drag him back home. The fickle crowds wanted to make him king when he performed miracles, but scoffed at his impossible teachings: Be happy when you’re poor, when you mourn, if you’re meek. This is not what most of us want to hear. The most difficult teaching had to do with giving us his body and blood to eat and drink. “Will you also go away?” he asks his disciples. Peter gives the perfect answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Early as it was in Peter’s discipleship, he knew that there was spiritual health and salvation only in what Christ taught and modeled: total love for God and neighbor; being the servant to others, not the Master; seeking first the Kingdom of God in sincerity of heart; letting go of all that keeps us from that goal.

And so, as we welcome our new brothers to the Monastery, let us pray that the faithful and loving spirit of Christ will enter them and remain with them – and us – always. Let us provide an ongoing example to each other as true followers of the Gospel.

On the Road!

A few weeks ago, Brother John received a request from a pastor in the Canandaigua area. Like so many of our parishes, two in this part of the Rochester Diocese had recently merged into a new one named St. Benedict’s. Pastor Michael Costik’s request was: Would we be willing to help St. Benedict’s familiarize parishioners with their new patron and with the Monastery “down the road”?

Brother Gabriel asked me if I’d like to respond to Father Michael on behalf of the Monastery. “Of course!” was my immediate reaction. Who wouldn’t want to “sell” the Monastery?

And so I introduced myself via email and phone to Deacon Claude Lester. Claude had come to Mt. Saviour for his discernment retreat prior to ordination, so he was especially enthusiastic about introducing parishioners to our place of prayer.

The target event was a celebration of Benedict’s feast day, nicknamed “Seven-Elevenish” since it was scheduled for the Sunday closest to the feast — this year, on July 8. They planned a BBQ lunch at the community center where there would also be displays of the parish’s ministries.Monastery items

Deacon Claude wanted a special table for Mt. Saviour to feature information on the monastery. The Brothers and I agreed on what to take up: pictures of the monastery chapel and grounds, pamphlets describing accommodations and directions, information on becoming an Oblate, and objects available at the gift shop. I also selected a number of books on Benedict and monasticism available in the shop.

Sunday July 8 was a splendid day for the ride up through the hills to Bloomfield Monastery Tablewhere their community center is located (formerly St. Bridget’s). Straight ahead as I entered the door, the Monastery table was the major focus. Behind the Monastery table was a huge quilt, each square made by a family telling something about that family.

Deacon Claude had already done a good deal of work to publicize St. Benedict. Here he is at one of the displays.
Deacon Claude Lester

I was introduced to the parishioners who headed up various ministries. One was involved in providing shelter for homeless families. Another was a food pantry, open three day a week, stocked with food donated by a number of local people and businesses. I liked the outreach aspect of this ministry. Another nine-year project continually raised funds to help missions in Kenya. I was impressed that these were hands-on ministries that focused on helping the truly needy. I had to interrupt my ministry pilgrimage when I woke up to the fact that I had my own project to publicize!

It didn’t take long to realize that just standing by our table, waiting for the world to come to me, wasn’t going to accomplish much, so I grabbed a handful of pamphlets and prayer cards. Going from table to table, distributing my goodies proved to be much more effective – and fun. I was able to answer questions including, “What’s an Oblate?”  Occasionally I’d meet someone who (a bit embarrassed to admit it) was not a Catholic. This provided an opportunity to share thoughts on ecumenism and our need to rely on one another.

The warmth and enthusiasm of these parishioners was very exciting to me. They certainly expressed the hospitality of our patron saint. What is more, as I was on my way out, Father Michael assured me that they’d be planning a group trip to visit Mt. Saviour. We know they’ll love it.Mt. Saviour

Obedience 101

Ages ago as a teen, I used to read one of those advice columns that every newspaper has. I think I ended the practice when I read a letter from a teen and its response. They went something like this:

Teen:
Dear Smart Adult: I’m so tired of having to jump to every order my parents give me: clean your room; do your homework; pick up your clothes; go to bed! I can’t wait until I’m 21 and married so I’ll be the one giving orders to my kids and making them obey ME!!! (Signed) Sick and tired

Smart Adult:
Dear Sick and tired: I’m really sorry for your troubles, but what makes you think that just turning 21 will forever release you from the need to obey? Here are some of the examples where you’ll find that strict obedience will always be required: your boss at work (providing you haven’t yet been fired for not following the rules); the local, state and federal tax collectors (unless you’ve ended up in jail for non-payment); your spouse who may have the audacity to expect you to get out of bed and to work on time so you can support your disobedient children . . . and so forth.

This was the kiss of death. I would never be in charge of anything or anybody! Now you know why I never forgot this incident from my youth. What Ms. Know-it-all said was that Obedience is an ever-present reality. The only change is in who’s giving the orders. I’d soon find out that I’m not in charge of anything, much less anybody. (More about that, God willing, in another post.)

I also remember my teachers, members of a religious order, telling us that the vow of obedience was the most difficult of the three they were required to make. Obedience required leaving their ego behind and adhering strictly to the judgment of another person. Moreover, the superior might be lacking in the personal qualities that make obedience easy, such as being (a) older/wiser; (b) better educated/smarter; (c) gentle and tactful.

St. Benedict makes obedience the very foundation of his Rule as he writes in the Prologue:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).

In these few words he tells us not only to obey (“listen”), but to go more deeply into the heart level. But whom do we lay Oblates, living outside of a monastic community, obey?

10-commandmentsObviously we must first start with The Law, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of the Church. Most of us feel we’re quite all right in that department until we’re told by Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20-22), to go beyond the letter of the law:

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Jesus did not stop even there. He gave us his own person to imitate as he saved the most important commandment for the last. At the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that their first duty as a disciple is to serve others. Perhaps because Jesus knew he didn’t have enough time to unravel the mysteries regarding the question of law and obedience, he created one single new commandment, one which is the clearest and the most difficult of all: Love one another as I have loved you.

How did Christ love us? He served, consoled, healed and forgave. He repeatedly referred to how he obeyed the Father. He could hear the Father through his intense prayer and his constant willingness to obey. Whatever the Father revealed to him in prayer, Jesus heard and understood. What he learned, he taught and also modeled. In his final act of obedience to the divine mission, he laid down his life for us.

There is so much more to say about the virtue of Obedience, especially as to how it relates to hearing the Lord. I welcome your thoughts, and pray that we can continue this discussion together.

Here I am, Lord: I come to do your will!

New Year’s Resolutions

resolutions-sI was never able to keep New Year’s Resolutions for more moments that it took to speak them.

Much more useful are the resolutions I’ve been making for the last few years, aimed at hopefully nurturing my spiritual life. At my age, I find that the simpler the better, so I limit the number of resolutions to three, and also prefer that they be in the form of ONE word only. Any more than that and I’d tend to forget them. Just three words can be easily remembered and repeated, very much like a mantra.

The three words I chose at the beginning of 2016 are:

  • Silence
  • Mindfulness
  • Trust.

I find these so important and so difficult that I’m keeping them for 2017. Also, as I meditate on these practices to write this Post, I discover how interrelated one is to the other.

Silence.
This doesn’t mean wearing earplugs or keeping the radio off. Actually, listening to music has the effect of shutting off other noise that might be keeping my mind and spirit spinning. By noise, I mean thoughts that whirl around in my head, most often having to do with relationships, such as conversations with others that haven’t gone very well. Or thoughts related to world events that I can’t do anything about – except to pray for the healing of the cruelty, greed and selfishness rampant in the world. I’d do much better to let those prayers enter my head, rather than to continue to want to fix all these problems or to stay angry that I can’t.

Silence also means letting the other person do the talking while I listen. I don’t mean simply nod my head now and then to give the illusion of listening. I mean really listening. I mean not butting in every two sentences to offer my opinion or advice. I mean listening in a supportive way, letting the other person vent, and letting myself be the ventee, rather than the ventor. This practice also serves the Benedictine principle of hospitality, since we are welcoming fully the person speaking to us.

As I practice this kind of Silence, I realize that it is related to No. 2 on the list: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to what we’re doing or saying. This includes paying attention to what you’re hearing while you’re being Silent (back to hospitality again). It also means paying full attention to what you’re doing, focusing on each step and not hurrying. Forget about multi-tasking. 

Oddly enough and contrary to what the word seems to say, Mindfulness doesn’t fill our minds. Because it requires focusing on one thing at a time, and that one thing is in the present moment, it results in an emptying of the mind, or at least the removal of mental clutter.

I tried mindfulness recently while I was baking. I had promised to bring two pies and a cake to a family gathering. In the past, I would have scrambled around, concocting all kinds of ways to be most efficient and to finish as quickly as possible. (And by the way, what was I going to do with all the time I saved?? Play computer games?) Scurrying around usually ended in dropping utensils and making a mess that took longer to clean up. This time, practicing mindfulness, I very deliberately completed each step in turn. Though it felt a little like being in a slow motion film, I was actually able  to complete the project in record time and with minimal if any gratuitous mess. Furthermore,  I had been able to remain calm and contented, enjoying the thought of the pleasure I’d be giving to the family.

What does mindful baking have to do with my spiritual life? And why, for heaven’s sake, do I think such tasks are different from my spiritual life? Focusing on the present moment, I am able to keep myself in the presence of God who is present everywhere and in every moment. Thus, even menial activities become prayer, that is, they unite us to God. (For more on this topic, look up the powerful little book by Jean-Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and Google the Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence whose mindfulness enabled him to remain in the presence of God while performing his kitchen duties. Here’s a link: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)

The practice of Mindfulness is similar to the practice of Silence. Both keep the mind and spirit uncluttered, focused, and more ready to approach everyday tasks in a spirit of prayer. All of us have menial tasks to perform just to get through our days in some kind of order and peacefulness. We frequently complain about them because they’re “boring” and keep us from “prayer time.” Mindfulness allows us not just to perform tasks, but to transform them from the worldly to the transcendent. It allows us to make a prayer of what we thought was just plain boring. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

The last resolution is perhaps the most difficult: Trust.

Our whole life has been spent trying to increase our mastery over so many things. We work hard to acquire the skills that will give us mastery over an art form, over knowledge and maybe most often, over other people. We even work to gain an illusory  mastery over our prayer life, and try to “do it right,” as if it’s a job and we’re in charge of it.

Trusting in God bolsters our spiritual immune system. Trust is like a spiritual antibiotic: it cures debilitating ills such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, pride, depression, and a whole host of related bad habits. Trust is simply admitting to God that He’s the one in charge, and being thankful that this is so. He’s the only one who knows the true outcome of what we fret over, what we’re afraid might happen. 

It’s very easy to talk about how wonderful Trust is, but quite another thing to practice it continually. This is why I’m keeping Trust on my list for another year. In fact, I need to keep it until death do us part.

Resolutions, like our spiritual life, are unique to each of us. I suggest taking a few quiet moments with the Lord, asking him to help us select a few habits we might want his help in acquiring (or dropping). He loves us, and will love this request. I’m guessing we’ll be given what we need.

Happy New Year!