Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A final thought about the Great O’s.

Reading what I have written about the original series of the seven Great O's, I am struck by how deeply dependent they are on a particular culture of Bible reading. It goes without saying that it is not the predominant culture of our age.

Most modern people, even the most evangelical, read the Bible through filters put in place by the enlightenment, by the scientific revolution, by university-based academic study methods, and by a constantly enlarging base of historical knowledge. Which is to say, We are aware of the Bible as a text. This sounds almost absurd to say. Of course it is a text! What else could it be?

But for it to be a text, it must also be something we can investigate, an object separated from ourselves, over against which we can range ourselves and organize our reactions, responses, investigations, theories. The net result of our entry into the modern world through the historical revolutions named above is to change our relation to the Bible – indeed, to any text.

In a pre-modern culture the Bible has a different location in human experience. For our medieval ancestors the Bible was not primarily an object of consideration, to be studied, but the world of God into which one was invited to enter.

This was true at every level of participation in pre-modern Christian culture, but particularly for those who dedicated their lives to Christian service, monastics and mendicants but also “secular” clergy. The lives of such people were lived, to an extent we can hardly imagine, in a Bible-saturated world, mediated through the liturgical practice of monasteries and of the Church at large. In the course of a lifetime of listening and learning, they would have memorized large stretches of scripture, certainly the Psalms, and many major passages. In addition, the habit of lectio divina, which in those days was almost entirely focused on scripture, would have led most to know much if not most of the Bible by heart, and those passages not known to the level of recitation from memory would have been deeply embedded in the memory which can recall significant passages with the trigger of a word or phrase.

As regards memory the medieval world had an advantage over us. They did not value the new the way we do. We get a significant new Bible translation almost every generation it seems, certainly since the late 1800s. But what we gain in accuracy and freshness we lose in retention. There was a time when most English-speaking Protestant Christians knew large chunks of the King James Version by heart. Much has been lost in the communal culture of Christianity by abandoning the single-text model of scripture.

Medieval Christianity was single-text based with a vengeance. The Bible they used was the Vulgate translation of Jerome, with a few holdovers in the older parts of the liturgy from earlier Latin translations. This text was incredibly stable from the early 400's when the Vulgate was first promulgated until the time of the humanist scholars at the turn of the 1500's, a thousand years, half the history of Christianity. Everyone in Western Christianity was on the same biblical page for a millenium, so to speak. [The translation of the Bible into vernacular languages is a complex and wonderful story, but these translations did not assume a central ecclesial and cultural role until the Reformation.]

So what we see in the Great O’s is a special form of memory. Each of the antiphons combines several passages, evoked by a word or two or at most a phrase, which brings to mind the entire passage and its context. By juxtaposing them, the antiphon creates a rich meditation on the subject, which brings simultaneously into one’s consciousness two, three or even more scriptural passages and amalgamates them into a new, thoroughly scriptural and quite sophisticated theological reflection. And this was easily available not just to instructed individuals, but to a whole religious communal culture because of the commonality of liturgy and written word to all.

This kind of memory-based, communal theological thinking is almost impossible now. We no longer have the shared culture of centuries of everyone hearing or reading the same translation, of life-long memorization and living into the word of scripture that they had. So in order to begin to unlock some of the richness of these antiphons, we have to resort to learned study and think in historical, researched ways. I think an average medieval monastic probably would not have been able to write these antiphons. They are the work of a theological and poetic genius. But the average medieval monastic, certainly one who had been at it for ten to twenty years or more, would have understood their allusions immediately, and would have quickly appreciated their complex meanings. Whereas we have to dust off our concordances, or find them online, and then do the work of reconstruction.

Much has been gained by modern scripture study. I certainly rejoice in it. But much has also been lost by our exit from the ancient ways of experiencing scripture. One of the joys of monastic life for me, and I know for others as well, is (in addition to modern scripture study, of course) to live into the Bible not as a text, a book, an object, but as a World – the World of God’s Word, where our imaginations can use our instructed memories to build wonderful and deeper and deeper appreciations of God’s love and goodness from our increasing knowledge of the Word.

Friday, December 26, 2008

O Virgo virginum

December 23:
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem. Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? For neither before you was there any seen like you, nor shall there be after: Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

The final Great O is entirely different from the preceding seven. That is because it was added after the original series was established, in England, to introduce the Virgin at the end of the Advent devotional cycle. For all that it is an addition, however, it is quite old. It is adapted in the wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem Christ A, often known as The Advent Lyrics, found in the Exeter Book manuscript, which was probably written at the end of the 10th Century, around 990 or so. That adaptation is worth study on its own, but not here (I can hear the sighs of relief as I am typing!).

The O Virgo is different both in form and in content from the others. The others introduce a title for Christ and then, as we have seen, gather a tightly woven group of quotes and references from the Vulgate which elucidate and clarify the scope of the title, ending with a call for Christ to come and aid us in that aspect of His rule.

The O Virgo is a little drama, a dialogue between the Daughters of Jerusalem and the pregnant Mary. The Daughters are surprised and question how the Virgin Birth can be, as it has never been seen before, nor will it be again. Mary serenely reassures them that what is about to happen is a divine mystery.

I find this dramatic scene reminiscent of the famous Quem queritis trope (“Whom do you seek?”, asked of the women who came to the tomb where Jesus had been buried). This four sentence narrative unit was introduced into the Easter Day liturgy in the Ninth Century, perhaps as part of the Carolingian reforms of worship. Within a century it had become a separate dramatic piece. It is, in fact, the beginning of modern western drama. Before long a similar Quem queritis was introduced into the Christmas liturgy, this time asked of the shepherds as they approached the stable. OHC uses a form of this little play as the first antiphon on the psalms for Christmas Day: “Whom do you behold, O shepherds, tell us, declare to us the tidings, on earth who has appeared? We saw the new-born Infant, and the choir of angels, praising the Lord together. Alleluia, alleluia.” It is customarily sung by us as a dialogue, the question sung by the choir on the cantor’s side, and the response on the other, with all joining in the Alleluias. Without knowing the origin of it, the monastery has moved instinctively in the same way that Tenth Century monks did.

My guess (I am not a liturgical scholar!) is that the O Virgo would seem to have had a similar origin. It sounds very much like the other fashionable little dramatic dialogues in vogue in the ninth and tenth centuries. It was probably added as an additional liturgical action piece, since people seemed to like that sort of thing. It was part of the liturgical movement of its day, and probably in response to people actually liking these little plays.

And the reason for its popularity is clear. The antiphon asks the question everyone asks of the Virgin Birth: How can it be? There has probably never been a time since the publication of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels that people did not ask this question. It is simply impossible from a human point of view. Which is precisely the point. In the birth of Jesus God is doing something new. He is breaking the rules, establishing a new humanity. As Adam and Eve were brought forth without reference to human parents, so the second Adam who ushers in the new humanity does not derive from business as usual childbirth either. At its base the Virgin Birth is not just about how one child was born, but is a statement of God’s power and capacity to bring the new into being, to transform the world, to upset the old and initiate a new creation. That is the divine mystery.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

O Emmanuel

December 22:
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the desire of all nations and their salvation: come and save us, O Lord our God

The clear source for the O Emmanuel is Isaiah 7:14: propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Emmanuel as a title only appears twice in the Hebrew scriptures, both times in Isaiah (the other is Isaiah 8:8), and in its quotation in the birth narrative in Matthew 1:23.

The other titles given are more common, but they repay pursuit. Legifer - lawgiver occurs in Isaiah 33:22, in an oracle about the glorious future that God will give his people: “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us:” Dominus enim iudex noster Dominus legifer noster Dominus rex noster ipse salvabit nos. This passage introduces as well the verbal element of savior: ipse salvabit nos, which is taken up in the antiphon’s last phrase.

“Desire of nations” - expectatio gentium is a little harder to pin down, but my guess is that it refers to Jacob’s oracle concerning Judah in Genesis 49:10: non auferetur sceptrum de Iuda et dux de femoribus eius donec veniat qui mittendus est et ipse erit expectatio gentium: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the peoples is his.”

Emmanuel in this antiphon is not simply the little child who is a sign in Isaiah. In Isaiah 7 the birth of the child is a sign to Ahaz the King of Judah to hold fast to God against the kings preparing to war against him. Immanuel means God-with-us, and the clear meaning of the child’s birth is that nothing will prevail against the favor God has for his people if they will be faithful to God no matter what the tribulations of the moment, because God is present among his people. In Matthew the angel appears to Joseph to tell him of Mary’s conception of the child by the Holy Spirit. This is not going to be welcome news at first to Joseph, and so Joseph is to hold fast in faithfulness, as Isaiah asked King Ahaz to do in the face of tribulations. The angel quotes Isaiah’s prophecy directly to Joseph. In Christian tradition the idea of God-with-us has developed from God’s protection of the people in time of war to God’s own presence in his world, bringing it back through lawful rule to its salvation, in the Incarnation, the God-with-us, the Word made flesh.

This last of the original series of Great O’s also reinforces the social and political message of the series. The child to be born will be, by implication, the fulfillment of Jacob’s promise of universal rule, the savior whose righteous law is what all peoples desire and the culmination of the ancient promise of God to his people.

O Emmanuel, you paradox at the heart of our faith, a child and a king, an infant and a lawgiver, for whom have longed since the beginnings of human confusion, Come and give us the law we need, Come and be the king we need, Come and fill our desire for the human future we so fervently pray for.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Advent break...

I didn't write the entry for "O Emmanuel" yesterday, nor the one for "O Virgin of Virgins" today.

The reason is that I helped with the funeral of a dear woman at The Church of St. Edward the Martyr, which necessitated a trip to New York City yesterday and the return today, in the cold and wet weather, on a not quite impossibly crowded train up the Hudson River, which is getting its act together to freeze over.

Mary Wilmot was 101 years old. She was born in Jamaica and came to the United States to find a better life. She found that life, with a wonderful family, and a good marriage to a man who by all reports was a sweet and wonderful gentleman, who unfortunately predeceased her by many years. I loved her spirit and her character. She loved to dance, and at her 100th birthday party at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem she danced the night away, putting the rest of us to shame.

Her funeral had seven priests in attendance and a full house of family and friends. The burial was in Paramus, New Jersey, and we got only mildly lost once or twice getting there. The repast was ample, no dainty little plates of finger food here, but chicken and ham and macaroni and cheese and rice and beans and collard greens and salad and rolls and three kinds of cake, and not small cakes either. So when we got back from the cemetery with a worked-up appetite, the ladies of the Church were ready!

I am preaching at the Monastery Christmas Midnight Mass tomorrow, so I may not get to the final two antiphons until sometime after. But I will finish the series!

Meanwhile, to everyone who reads this blog, I pray that the blessing of the Christ Child will be yours, that your heart will be opened as that Little One has opened so many hearts before, and that the love of Christ will grow and bear fruit in your life.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

O King of Nations

December 21:
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of nations and their desire, the Cornerstone, uniting both in one: come and save mankind, whom you formed of clay.

This antiphon’s meditation is on the function of the King, taking up the Davidic identity of the Messiah once again. He is to be universal, yearned for, one whose strength and stability are foundational, and whose stoney nature gives the necessary strength to us who, formed of clay, have no strength on our own.

Jeremiah 10:7 is probably the source for the title Rex Gentium: “Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For that is your due; among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is no one like you:” Quis non timebit te o rex gentium tuum est enim decus inter cunctos sapientes gentium et in universis regnis eorum nullus est similis tui.

Their Desire is from Haggai 2:7: movebo omnes gentes et veniet desideratus cunctis gentibus et implebo domum: “And I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.” Note that the NRSV here translates the title as treasure.

The Cornerstone may come from Isaiah 28:16: "Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: "One who trusts will not panic:" Ecce ego mittam in fundamentis Sion lapidem lapidem probatum angularem pretiosum in fundamento fundatum. Qui crediderit non festinet.

But the image of Jesus as the cornerstone is one of the key christological images of the New Testament, picked up in all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark 12:10, Matthew 21:42, Luke 20:17) as well as in Acts 4:11. It also figures in Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:6. It is from Psalm 118:22-23 (Psalm 117 in the Vulgate numeration): “ The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes:” Lapis quem reprobaverunt aedificantes factus est in caput anguli. A Domino factum est istud et hoc mirabile in oculis nostris.

And then, we are formed of clay. This is clearly from the second creation story in Genesis 2:7: Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae et inspiravit in faciem eius spiraculum vitae et factus est homo in animam viventem: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” It is tempting to look to the prophetic tradition for the image of God’s people as the clay and God as the potter, but for that image the Vulgate uses another word for clay: instead of limum, lutum.

But the key to understanding all these images is the phrase “uniting both in one”. The common theme of all the images is that the coming Christ will bring disparate, fractile things into unity, solidity: he will unite nations under one king, provide a common desire to which they are all drawn, become the single cornerstone on which the stresses of a stone building can rest secure, give the weak clay of created human nature the promise of the strong stone of the redeemed human nature in the risen Christ. This image finds its clearest expression in Ephesians 2:13-14, and in the context of bringing warring nations and peoples together: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us:” Nunc autem in Christo Iesu vos qui aliquando eratis longe facti estis prope in sanguine Christi. Ipse est enim pax nostra qui fecit utraque unum et medium parietem maceriae solvens inimicitiam in carne sua: Note the phrase taken up so priminently in the antiphon: utraque unum.

The coming Christ is the king for the nations, whose strength brings stability and peace and gives us, weak as we are, a hope that we are more than the clay from which we have been formed.

So much of the politics of the world rests on convincing people that this or that ideology will bring unity and strength to people who are fractured and weak. The history of the twentieth century should warn us of the dangers of that kind of politics. But it is nothing new. Demagogues have been appealing to this desire of the nations since the dawn of time. It is the genius of the messianic hope to place all these would-be saviors under the judgment of the better one who is to come, and to warn us when we want to follow one political savior or another that none of these folks is ultimate. None of them is attractive enough or strong enough or stable enough or wise enough to give us an ultimate answer. And if we do give them the trust due only to the Messiah, the result is more likely to be a gulag or an Auschwitz or a party despotism or a great leap forward which is actually a great leap backward, and all of it saturated in blood, as it is the promised fulfillment of human longing. Placed in us at the moment when the breath of God animated the clay we are still so close to, that longing is God's gift to us, the hope that keeps the human race striving after better rule, better politics, a more just world.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Dayspring

December 20:
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Dayspring, brightness of the light everlasting and Sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

The image of the rising sun to describe the advent of a hoped for, just savior is probably as old and as universal as the longing itself. Sunrise is nature’s own way of giving hope, as each new day brings the possibilities of better things. And so it is in Scripture. There are so many images of light.

But our antiphon in fact arises (if I may be permitted the pun) from a New Testament source: the Canticle of Zechariah, otherwise known as the Benedictus, in Luke 1:78-79: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." The Vulgate text makes it unmistakably the source: Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri: in quibus visitavit nos, oriens ex alto: Illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent.

This text is one of the most familiar in the monastic liturgy, being recited daily at Lauds from at least the time of Benedict in the sixth century, and likely before. In the Anglican tradition it is recited daily at Morning Prayer. So every morning every monk, and every observant daily office-reciting Anglican, and I am sure many another praying Christian as well, repeats this prophecy of John the Baptist’s father.

The sources of the other images are not as straightforward, but not hard to find, either. From Habakkuk 3:4 we have Splendor eius ut lux erit, and from Wisdom 7:26, candor est enim lucis æternæ. Doubtless there are other sources as well. The sol justitiae probably comes from Malachi 4:2: Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum Sol iustitiae, et sanitas in pennis eius: "But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings."

Light is the image that dominates here. The coming of the Messiah is a time when the lights which had dimmed will brighten again, when a new day will dawn and life will have another chance. I have had a few times like that in my life, when what I really needed was a whole new light to begin again. The world gets old. Our lives get old, things wear out, depression sets in.

The image of people sitting in darkness is so true. It is remarkable how many people just sit around in darkened rooms, even on a lovely day, when the sky is clear and the air is fresh. You would think that people would rejoice in the light, but they don’t always. Sometimes we have created a comfortable little place for ourselves, away from the light, away from the fresh air, something filled with our own stuff, our own space for our own undisturbed selfness. Sometimes this darkness is an external correlative to depression or illness or unhappiness or failure. I think this great antiphon challenges that. It invites us to look away from ourselves, to the east, so to speak, to the rising sun, and to let something new in, something that will shake up our darkness, whether it be born of pain or is simply a comfy but still self-involved nook or cranny, which will let in the light and give us new life. Which we need. Our own life is never enough by itself. At the most basic level, at the level of the insufficiency of ourselves to be the center of our own lives, we need saving.

It is perhaps worth noting that this light-centered antiphon always falls on or a day before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the light is brief, and depending on how far north you are, weak.

Friday, December 19, 2008

O Key of David

December 19:
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel,you open and no one can close, and you close and no one can open: come and bring the prisoners out of the prison, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

The symbols in this antiphon are both symbols of power: the key and the scepter. The key is about access, freedom and restriction. The scepter is about the royal monopoly on force, in other words, on sovereignty. They are both aspects of the Expected One, whose reign will liberate and regulate the world with justice.

The antiphon hews closely to texts from Isaiah. The first is Isaiah 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” The Latin makes the resemblance clear: Et dabo clavem domus David super humerum eius: et aperiet, et nor erit qui claudat; et claudet, et non erit qui aperiat.

No medieval Christian could approach this figure of the Key, with its power of opening and closing, without thinking of the power of the keys to the kingdom given to Peter and his successors, which can bind and loose in heaven what is bound and loosed on earth. And so this passage makes an oblique reference to the entrusting of such vast authority to a servant of the Lord. The key in Isaiah is entrusted to Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who will become the new steward in the palace of King Hezekiah, replacing the dishonest steward Shebna. Eliakim will have the authority that goes with his office and will discharge it honestly. What he opens none can close, and what he closes none can open. Peter is such a steward, as are his successors, or so one hopes. Is this a (very) oblique criticism of some of the occupants of the Chair of Peter, Shebnas from whom the keys will be taken and given to new Eliakims? An interesting question. One does not usually look for the critical eye in an antiphon, but perhaps it is here.

The prisoners in the dungeon, whom the antiphon asks to be liberated, are from Isaiah 42. This passage is from the first Servant Song in Isaiah. The Lord says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness:” Ut aperires oculos caecorum, et educeres de conclusione vinctum. This Servant is the mild and righteous ruler, who is not turbulent or violent: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

The key and the liberation of the prisoners have clear sources. But what about the scepter? As our poet seems quite secure in the prophetic environment of Isaiah, let’s look there. There is only one use of sceptrum in the Vulgate translation of Isaiah, in 9:4: “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” Iugum enim oneris , et virgam humeri eius, et sceptrum exactoris eius superasti, sicut in die Madian. Not only a scepter, but a virga, reminiscent of the Radix Iesse! And who are these people who are being liberated? The rest of the passage (Isaiah 9:1-7) will tell us. They are none other than “The people who walked in darkness” who “have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.” The same as the light deprived people in prison. And who is the One who will take up this scepter wrongly wielded and make it right? "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

This antiphon is about power, about how power is used rightly by a sovereign and by his ministers. And what are the marks of authentic power from God? Eliakim is to be “as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” And the new sovereign is to be born with the attributes of wisdom by which he will exercise his mighty office.

I can’t help but think of two great pieces of music as I ponder this magnificent meditation on power and its potential to liberate and establish righteous justice. The first is obvious, perhaps: Handel’s magnificent chorus “For unto us a child is born” from Messiah. Who cannot be moved by this beautifully happy celebration of the child to come, of whom it is sung, “and the government will be upon his shoulders”?

The second is perhaps not so obvious, but it brings chills to my spine every time I hear it. It is the opening of the prison in the finale of the first act of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. At the pleading of Leonore (herself a savior figure) Rocco, the honest jailer, opens the doors and the prisoners tentatively move toward the light and fresh air which they have been denied in their darkened prison:

O welche Lust! In freier Luft
den Atem leicht zu heben!
Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben.

And then more softly, in perfect choral harmony, words that express so movingly the emotion of every prisoner who has ever been given a taste of what a free life might be:

O Himmel! Rettung! Welch’ ein Glück!
O Freiheit! Freiheit!

Every time I hear this second chorus I not only get chills in my spine, but I weep. This is to me the most perfect musical expression of what the Clavis David promises: the righteous scepter, the legitimate power of a seemingly weak savior (a child in Isaiah) which empowers the honest, faithful steward to turn the key which opens the lock to bring us out of the darkness. And not only out of darkness, but out of the ultimate darkness, out of the shadow of death, that last and most Davidic of all references, from his own 23rd psalm, the psalm of David’s own deliverance.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

O Root of Jesse

December 18:
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, you stand for an ensign of the people, before you kings will shut their mouths, and for you the Gentiles will seek: come and deliver us, and do not tarry.

Most of us know the Radix Jesse in the form of the Jesse Tree, a popular theme in medieval art, perhaps most famously in the exquisite window of Chartres Cathedral. It pictures Jesus as the fruit of the great lineage of the family of King David, beginning with David's father, Jesse.

The antiphon straightforwardly develops quotes from Isaiah 11, the famous chapter which predicts the coming of the righteous king: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. " In Latin the first verse is a clear source: Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse, et flos de radice eius ascendit. As is verse 10: In die illa radix Iesse, qui stat in signum populaorum, ipsum gentes deprecabuntur, et erit sepulchrum eius gloriosum. "On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious." The antiphon seems almost complete as a deft reworking of these two verses.

And between Isaiah's verses come two of the most sublime descriptions of the coming rule of the Expected One in all literature: "The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD." Which is what we have desired of rulers since the beginning of time. And then, the Peaceable Kingdom: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." The scripturally saturated heart will not fail to notice these qualities of the one to rise from the Root of Jesse. They are the eternal hope of Israel in the covenant with the House of David, and lie at the base (one might say, the root) of the understanding of the Messiah.

But what about the kings shutting their mouths? Where does that come from? There is a dramatic situation behind the antiphon which is not precisely equivalent to the Isaiah passage. It is a conflict which the one to come will resolve, the conflict with noisy kings and their instruments of force.

As I was meditating on this today, what came to me was Psalm 2, parts of which clearly foreshadow (certainly in the medieval mind, the Psalms predate Isaiah) the messianic predictions of Isaiah:

1 Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
2 Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt, and the princes plot together, *
against the LORD and against his Anointed?
3 "Let us break their yoke," they say; *
"let us cast off their bonds from us."
4 He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.
5 Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.
6 "I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion."
7 Let me announce the decree of the LORD: *
he said to me, "You are my Son; this day have I begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
9 You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery."
10 And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Submit to the LORD with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;
12 Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

The rod in verse 9 is a virga, but is it the rod of Isaiah, or is it a different rod, a rod of iron, all business and war? Even more apposite is verse 7: Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu: Ego hodie genui te. Christians cannot read this verse without understanding that it prefigures the Incarnation, which is the point of the Root of Jesse after all.

The surprise? Perhaps it is in the way in which the kings are made to shut their mouths and the nations come seeking Him. That central section of Isaiah is present to the instructed scriptural consciousness by implication. Not in the rod of iron, the virga ferrea of the psalm, but the virga which confers genetic legitimacy on the Just Ruler who is to come. His weapons are not the iron of war but the Gifts of the Spirit of the Lord. His reign is not simply one of earthly peace, the absence of armed conflict, but the great Shalom which will restore the paradisal condition. Matthew's genealogy of Christ goes back to Abraham, but Luke's all the way to the radix, the first father of us all, Adam, "son of God". The One To Come is not simply another competent ruler and war chieftain. He is the one whose legitimate Messianic descent will restore the hopes of us all, which is why politicians will finally shut up and peoples come running to find him. As should we. And please hurry: Jam noli tardare!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

O Adonai

December 17:
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the law on Sinai: come and redeem us with an outstretched arm!

In the second Great O antiphon we become aware that this series will pursue a short course in what German theologians call Heilsgechichte -- the history of salvation. If the first is a meditation on creation and the common aspirations of spiritually alive people, whether pagan or not, the second places us squarely in the beginning of Israel's encounter with God. The antiphon references five aspects of God in relation to Moses and to the people of Israel.

The first is the name of God. Adonai is the Jewish euphemism for the tetragrammaton -- the four letter name of God revealed to Moses on Sinai. It is Hebrew for Lords, plural to emphasize the ultimacy of God, and is read in place of the tetragrammaton wherever it appears in the Hebrew scriptures. The Vulgate -- the Latin Bible universally read in the medieval Western Church -- generally renders Dominus for the tetragrammaton. In only two places does it use Adonai -- at the self-revelation of God to Moses in Exodus 6:3, and, interestingly, in Judith's song of triumph, Judith 16:16, in which she celebrates the strength of God in overcoming Holofernes.

The second is the title dux. Our word "duke" evolved from it, but in the fourth century, when Jerome made his translation, it would refer to a war leader, a general leading troops. It was not an honorific or a hereditary title at that point, but a function of the necessary business of fighting. It was still that in the early middle ages -- the medieval dux was a familiar figure, not perhaps always welcome, but you hoped he would be there when trouble came. God is here honored not simply as "leader", which is a little weak, but as the war leader of the house of Israel. This would seem to refer not so much to the escape from Egypt but perhaps to the wandering in the desert, certainly to the conquest of the Promised Land.

Third is the apparition to Moses in the burning bush. And fourth, the giving of the Law at Sinai. Both need little comment, except to note their equivalence as explanations of what God did in the "Moses event".

The fifth requires some unpacking, however. "Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm." The outstretched arm is a reference to God's gift of victory to his people occurring in this exact phrase, brachio extento, at least ten times in the Vulgate, beginning with its first appearance in Deuteronomy 5:15, in which God led the people of Israel out of Egypt, in the context of the fourth commandment, establishing the Sabbath: et eduxerit te inde Dominus Deus tuus in manu forti, et brachio extento -- "and from whence the Lord your God led you with a might hand and an outstretched arm". The prophets use the phrase extensively and broaden it to include other interventions by God on Israel's behalf. So the fifth is a reference, somewhat veiled, to the Exodus itself.

If there is a meditative surprise here, perhaps it is in the order in which these events are given in the antiphon. In the scriptures they occur in the sequence burning bush (3), revelation of the Name (1), the escape from Egypt (5), the giving of the Law (4), and God's military leadership (2).

The author of this antiphon has clearly another sequence than the historical in mind. The first clause combines the saving action of Adonai in the revelation of his identity with His identity as giver of military success. No doubt the people of Israel found confirmation of the Mosaic proclamation in the concrete realization of victory over the Canaanites, and perhaps our poet is adopting their point of view. The central section, the subordinate clause beginning with qui, dwells on Moses' centrality in this encounter with God, at the bush and in the giving of the law. These are placed in central, equivalent, positions structurally, leading us to wonder about their connection with each other: the unexplainable mysteries of God's presence in nature and the mysteries of humans keeping the Law of God, transforming our nature into something unexpectedly holy. Then the meditation returns to the display of power, this time the saving power God extends in history to his people, which we need now as much as then. The poet is identifying us with the ancient Israelites, looking for confirmation of God's identity and revelation in acts of saving power for us, his people, as of old.

So the movement of this thought pattern is identity (in Name [A] and in action [B]) - revelation in two parts , the burning bush [C1] and the Law given on Mount Sinai [C2] - return to action [B], and by implication, restoration of our confidence in the Name of the One [A]. An incomplete chiasmic structure (A-B-C1-C2-B) leaving us to fill in the missing A. Which is, of course, so hauntingly chanted at the beginning of the antiphon, and which is what we will remember first: O Adonai.

O Adonai, you who trust us with your Name, who led our ancestors in the battles that won them the Promised Land, who appear both in mysterious events we cannot explain and in the mundane activities of everyday life, making the smallest act of law-keeping an encounter with You on the holy mountain: Come and save us now, with the mighty arm of your unfathomable and unknowable power, so gracious to us in our need.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O Wisdom

From the English usage on December 16:
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

O Wisdom, you came out of the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence. (trans. from OHC's A Monastic Breviary).

The O's begin with a meditation on wisdom, the wisdom proceeding from the mouth of God which orders creation. This is the theology of the Word, in Hebrew dabar, in Greek logos, the foundational insight of the Judeo-Christian tradition which directly links the world we experience to the mind of God. So our approach to the saving work of God starts with the assertion that what is to be saved was created and is already foundationally in tune with its creator/savior.

The coming into the world of this wisdom is a kind of homecoming. I sometimes wonder if the parables Jesus tells of a householder going off on a journey and coming back unexpectedly, not knowing what he will find when he returns, are not an indication of God's experience in finding the world he made not exactly perfectly in tune with him. Certainly John (1:10-11) makes that explicit.

I am reading a new, interesting, somewhat abstruse book on Roman paganism by Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. Ando's starting point is the assertion that the Romans did not have myths, or at least when they needed them, they borrowed them. From the Greeks, of course. What they did have was praxis, the right performance of ritual. This praxis permeated everything in life. Their praxis can be shown to have changed as they noted what did and didn't work. Ando argues that Roman pagan religion was profoundly experiential, in that what they were interested in was discovering the links between the phenomenal world and the spiritual realities which lay beyond it. Each ritual act was observed in its intention, its performance and its effect. Just as the Hebrews and their Christian descendants did, the Romans were looking for the word behind the world. They were looking for the wisdom that would enable them to act prudently, to line themselves up with the relevant spiritual powers and find protection and success by doing so.

This doesn't seem so odd to me. I suppose that trying to line yourself up with the divine is the universal desire of humankind. So for me, this first antiphon is a bridge to the experience of all our ancestors, going back to the dawn of consciousness. They all wanted wisdom, they all felt and thought that the world we are in proceeds from and operates according to the will of the divine one(s), and that our job is to get in touch with that and speak and act accordingly, which is prudence.

It gives me great comfort to imagine that my desire for wisdom and prudence is shared by all serious thinking and feeling people of every age, even the painters of the caves of Altamira, even the worshipers of the Venus of Willendorf, even the obsessive-compulsive Romans trying so hard to get it right so that they could go out and conquer some more of their neighbors, near and far. It is profoundly human. Judaism and Christianity are not discontinuous at all with the great human longings for wisdom.

The Wisdom we ask to come to us is mighty in its actions. But it is also sweet, which is perhaps the surprise word here. For on the whole pagan religion is about fear, seeking to avoid trouble -- famine, disease, injury, natural and human disaster, childlessness, death -- which is the lot of every human, and knowing that even if you get too close to the virtue of the divine one(s), you may not be able to bear it. And if it is not about fear, it is about power -- getting it, keeping it, using it. The divine is powerful and dangerous, and so prudence is the right gift to ask for. But Jesus, now there's a different kind of power. The helpless child, poor and insignificant. The teacher whose words and deeds only get him into trouble with the higher-ups, and anyway, he spent his time with people who really don't count. The life given on the Cross. The surprise ending of the Resurrection and the astonishing (eventual) victory of a community at least nominally centered on the Love, not the Danger, of God. Blessed are the meek. How very different from the Romans, indeed, from practically everyone else, who have the sense to ask for the sensible gifts, not mourning, poverty, persecution. In Jesus the world of desire and power is turned on its head.

So sweetness is part of real prudence too. Not only the avoidance of danger, but learning the wisdom of delight, of beauty, of kindness, of compassion, of agape, disinterested love for the sake of the other. Learning the sweetness of not just loving the poor but being one of them. Come and teach us the way (now there's a loaded word for Christians!) of prudence.

Advent and the Great O's

Well, it is now more than halfway through Advent and I haven't written anything. So I thought I would make up for that by writing a brief meditation on each of the "Great O" antiphons, which in the Anglican tradition begin today.

These antiphons are called "Great O's" because each begins with the exclamation "O", which when chanted in plainsong is a rather long musical phrase. They seem to date back to the seventh or eighth centuries and were written to adorn the sung monastic office in Advent. There are seven Great O's in the continental liturgical tradition, eight in the English rite. The eighth is a meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The seven first antiphons each begins with a title from the Old Testament tradition which describes a saving aspect of God: Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of the Nations, Emmanuel. The saving action of each of these is briefly characterized, followed by a brief prayer which begins: Veni, Come, and accomplish that great work in our time. The eighth does not follow this threefold format, but is a brief dialogue between Mary and the daughters of Jerusalem on the mystery of the Incarnation.

I love these antiphons. I first learned them (all unknowing) as perhaps you did, in the great hymn in our tradition, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The music for the Great O's in OHC's monastic office is beautiful, melodic, contemplative. We began singing them this evening.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is upon us.

This one will be different from my last sixteen. While I was in parish ministry, Thanksgiving was always problematic. In Anaheim we had a service in the morning, and then people went home for dinner. A couple of times I wasn't invited anywhere and just shifted for myself. Usually, but not always, people invited me in advance, and that was always kind. A couple of times it was at the door after the service. "Where are you having dinner?" Well, actually nowhere, I would say, trying but not succeeding to keep my disappointment to myself. I had some really nice times those years. But to be a guest in someone else's home on a day with so many intimate associations was a challenge for me. I suppose I could have cooked a nice dinner and invited others, but, frankly, I wasn't up to it.

When I moved to New York City, I discovered, I am almost but not quite ashamed to admit, to my delight, that St. Edward's had no tradition of Thanksgiving Day services. Hallelujah. We had the usual Wednesday Eucharist and then I would betake myself to the monastery, catching the always packed train to Poughkeepsie. Being with the brothers was wonderful, but it wasn't quite home. So this year really is home! I'm here already, and so thankful to be in the midst of a loving community.

Things to give thanks for. The usual inventory of the present moment, of course: a roof overhead, heat, clothes, food, which so many do not have. A loving community to live in. Rewarding work to do. Reasonably good health. More interesting books to read than I can ever finish, and doubtless more coming my way. Friends. The Church, in all its present weirdness. The Order of the Holy Cross, now entering our 125th year. The House of the Redeemer, its wonderful staff and trustees, its great programs, the window on other worlds that it gives me. Music (I am listening to Haydn's Esterhazy operas in the evenings). And on and on. I sometimes feel guilty when I am in list mode for thanksgiving in prayer, because I always leave something important out.

And the inventory of the past: my family (though I would not always have put all of them on the list, I do now), especially my Aunt Mary who is 100 this year, made it to the party and beyond and is now beginning to fail; my parishes and their wonderful people, St. Edward's East Harlem, St. Michael's, Anaheim and Holy Family, Half Moon Bay; the brothers in OHC now gone who live on in heart and memory; my seminary, CDSP, and especially the Borschs; the Diocese of Los Angeles, with special memories of the Commission on Ministry for many years; Cornell and Michigan State and Western High School and Hyde Park Junior High School and Edison Elementary School; All Saints, Las Vegas and St. James, Pullman WA; the monasteries I have lived in -- Holy Cross in West Park (in the old days -- the 70's are now the old days!), Toronto, Berkeley, and of course, Mount Calvary; the Camaldolese brothers, with joyful regard to Robert Hale and Andrew Colnaghi; the Camaldolese monastery at San Gregorio Magno in Rome; the Anaheim Police Department, who welcomed me as their chaplain for five years; the Spanish language and Hispanic people I ministered to for so long, and especially the undocumented ones, whose faces just pop into my head unbidden from time to time, needing prayer, I suppose; the seminarians and recent seminary graduates I have mentored and who have now gone on to ordination and whatever their priesthood has been called to; spiritual directees over the years; so many places I have preached; the list is just going to get longer.

And then there are the things which did not seem to be blessings at the time. The disasters and traumas and losses, the conflicts, the closed doors, the attempts which failed. I used to be depressed by them, but now I give thanks for them. Each one proved to be a blessing eventually, from learning from the experience, from moving away from something I wanted but wasn't really for me, from learning t0 love the realities that God had placed me in, from being forced to grow into skills and identities I never imagined I would need to have. I think my greatest growth has always come from the things that did not work out. And one of the things about growing older is that the turnaround time decreases. When I was younger I would spend a lot of energy on my reactions, tenderly nurturing my disappointments. But I have learned that those plants don't bear very good fruit.

So, Thanks for not being admitted to grad school at Yale or Princeton but to Cornell. Thanks for not getting a job in my field. Thanks for being told to shut up about my great learning when I was a postulant in OHC. Thanks for living in our priory in Berkeley when we had no money for food sometimes. Thanks for not being sent to Texas when I graduated from CDSP but to Mount Calvary instead. Thanks for being made Novice Master in a really difficult situation in the 80's. Thanks for the Order losing its wealth in the early 80s. Thanks for the sewage system at Mount Calvary collapsing. Thanks for not being reappointed prior in 1990 when I wanted it more than anything. Thanks for communal problems in Berkeley. Thanks for reaching my limit and deciding to do parish work but not leave OHC. Thanks for all the parishes that did not elect me rector. Thanks for St. Michael's denying its own future to itself and thanks for the conflict it brought. And for two things which are certainly not causes for rejoicing in any objective way, but set up conditions for grace to flow: Thanks for the poverty in East Harlem, because without it there would not have been the parish of St. Edward's that is so faithful there. Thanks for 9/11 just months after I moved to NYC, because without it there would not have been the many opportunities for ministry it brought. This list could go on and on too.

So, this fall, death, the economy down the tubes, Mount Calvary lost to fire.... It's a lot. But I give thanks, because I know that people who meet loss with faith and energy and determination find new life.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Fire on the Mount

As usual in the monastery, it is the little things that denote something important. I noticed at breakfast yesterday that Robert, our Superior, whispered something to Charles, our postulant. Soon Charles was doing breakfast dishes with us rather than Robert. And in a few minutes the news spread: there is a serious fire in Montecito. Robert appeared and let us know the details -- that the guests at Mount Calvary had been evacuated on Thursday evening to St. Mary's Convent near the Old Mission; that the brothers had evacuated around midnight; and that the situation looked pretty grim.

We got through the morning without anything definite, but then at the noon meal the news came that a friend of Mount Calvary had contacted the Santa Barbara Fire Chief and that the monastery had burned. As the day went on the confirmations mounted, pictures were seen, a live feed NBC helicopter camera spent 90 seconds or so showing Mount Calvary. It was gone.

We had a scheduled monastery finance committee meeting at 2. During it I felt myself having what I assumed was an allergic reaction to something at the noon meal -- impaired respiration, tingling in extremities, tightening up my vocal cords, raised temperature, flushed face. I have never had a food allergy reaction before, except for a very mild one when I eat raw honey, and that is just a few raised bumps on the tongue. How interesting. Bede suggested it was a nervous reaction. Perhaps it was.

I spent 11 years of my life at Mount Calvary. I arrived there in the summer of 1979, a freshly ordained deacon right out of seminary. I was made Guest Master, and spent 2 years cleaning and improving the facilities and creating a more comprehensive administrative system. Two years later our new Superior asked me to be Prior, and I continued in that position for 9 years, until 1990. In that time we brought our guest ministry there into an almost professional operation. I am happy to say that the brethren there since have made the operation better and better. A few years into my time as Prior it became clear that we were going to have to do something serious about the building. The sewage system was gradually collapsing, the neighbors were objecting to our traffic up the hill, the monastery section was primitive to say the least. We joked that we were living in the Bates Motel. The building was running down.

We spent years fund raising while we also worked on developing renovation plans. We spent those years working also with the City of Santa Barbara and our neighbors to gain access to the City's sewage system. It was a long struggle, but we finally reached an agreement: The neighbors would build a new road up the back of the ridge, which would become the new access road, and we would be allowed to run our sewage line through their property to the City main. That insured our continuation at Mount Calvary, since our most recent effort at a leaching field had utterly failed.

We raised the money, got permits for the plan, found a good contractor, rented a house in Goleta to live in for the duration, and the work began in June, 1989. It finished on schedule, right on time for a writers' retreat to be led by Madeleine L'Engle. Madeleine was a tall person, and she had given a gift to install an extra-long tub in the new room she would occupy.

I like to imagine that I knew every inch of that building by the time the renovation was over. I wanted to stay on and build on what we had accomplished, but new leadership in OHC wanted to make changes, and so I was transferred to Berkeley. It was a hard adjustment for me.

So to hear that such an important part of my life was burning, and then to see the pictures, was heartbreaking. I know what the conventional monastic response to such a loss should be -- gratitude for gifts given and detachment as they are taken away. But. But. It will take me a while to get to the conventional place. A part of my life, a part of my heart, is gone.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Talk, talk, talk

This has been one of those days filled with talking. The Office and Eucharist are pretty word-based, though, fortunately, not conversational. The work day for me today held, in order, our Chapter meeting (a community meeting beginning and ending with prayer, containing a reading from the Rule, confession of faults, announcements of the day's appointments, agendas and needs, and intercessory prayer); choir practice; the monthly house meeting, to discuss matters pertinent to the common life; the mid-day meal, which was a talking meal because today is a feast day (James of Jerusalem); dishwashing, which can get chatty; several short conversations with the monastery bookkeeper (who is delightful); a meeting of the vocations team (three people, 75 minutes); and the novitiate class, which is mostly me talking but has dialogue as well. By Vespers at 5 I was about talked out. So many words, so much sound. Good things were said and decided and (I hope) taught, but I came away from the workday feeling inundated.

Which might sound a little strange to people who know me. I usually like to talk. But when the mouth runs pretty much all day long, even a chatty type like myself gets a little weary of it.

My spiritual reading (actually, re-reading; I love this book) at the moment is the classic (first published in 1975) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, translated by the incomparable Benedicta Ward. One of the passages (25), from the section devoted to Abba Arsenius, says this:

"One day Abba Arsenius came to a place where there were reeds blowing in the wind. The old man said to the brothers, 'What is this movement?' They said, 'Some reeds.' Then the old man said to them, 'When one who is living in silent prayer hears the song of a little sparrow, his heart no longer experiences the same peace. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds.'

So much to unpack. First of all, there is nothing here about the dangers of talking, which are so many. The Letter of James sums up a long, long scriptural wisdom tradition, doubtless shared in most traditional cultures, when he says, "Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest; the tongue is a flame like that" (James 3:5-6). He goes on in that vein. Benedict's Rule is constantly warning of the dangers of talking. Less talking is universally recommended by the tradition. Well, fortunately, I think I got through today's conversations without actually committing a sin, or upsetting anyone, or even gossiping much. There's something to be said for a day full of talk when nothing overtly bad has escaped one's lips. For me, such a day is like running a race with a lot of hurdles to jump. How wonderful when I haven't knocked some over, as I often do. For which I am grateful and count it a blessing.

Abba Arsenius is not talking about the damage talking can do. He is in another place altogether.

Have you ever just stopped talking -- to others and in your head, to yourself -- long enough to hear the sounds around you? I love the early mornings in New York City, before the serious noise begins, because you can hear nature as well as the ever-present machine sounds. And out here in the country, around the monastery, you can easily go outside and be still and listen. That kind of listening, to the sounds of the world, is very restorative to me. I especially like the sound of the wind when it blows through the woods that surround the monastery, rustling the branches and leaves.

Abba Arsenius, surprisingly, is not especially positive about nature's sounds. I don't know many texts where the gentle sounds of sparrow songs and reeds in the wind are held up to criticism. This may be unique in the literary canon. So deep is the silence in which he dwells that even the gentlest, loveliest natural sounds are like nature's fingernails on God's blackboard to him. He wants complete silence -- from himself, from other people, from the world around him -- so that he can listen for God.

Perhaps this saying was remembered because it holds up an ideal to the monk, whose work it is to be quiet and listen. I was both shamed and thrilled when I read this word today. Ashamed because of how often I fail even rudimentarily, giving in to talk that is profitless, or worse. Ashamed because of the time and energy I waste in talk when I could be cultivating habits of silence. But thrilled to hear the goal set up once again before me. Thrilled because I know, after 35 years at this, that I really love silence and thrive in it. Thrilled to be reminded once again that others have trod the path of silence before me.

Because this silence, the silence Arsenius loves, is not a vast emptiness, a void, a negativity. It is attentive waiting for God, for love, for joy, for that moment when your heart swells with that intense word/feeling/knowledge/urgency which is the Word speaking to you. You can't summon it. It comes to you when it will. If you want it, you need to make yourself available for it.

I am certainly not yet ready to dismiss the sparrow's sweet song or the wind in the reeds. But what bliss it would be to reach that point where the silence is so profound and so meaningful and so God-filled that even their exquisite beauty is a distraction from the joy of listening for God.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A death in the family

Brother William Sibley died on Tuesday morning. He had been in gradually declining health for some years, but over the weekend he fell at least once, his temperature went up, his breathing became heavy and labored, and so the EMT squad was called, and they took him to the hospital in Kingston. Robert, the Superior, went with him, and stayed until 11pm, when he was taken from the emergency room to intensive care. He died about 7:30 in the morning.

On Tuesday morning I barely made it to Matins. I had had one of those nights that is becoming more frequent as I get older -- waking up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep till 5 or so, then dead to the world until something wakes me up. In this case it was the monastery church tower bell calling us to Matins. It rings 5 minutes before the office. I leaped -- well actually, it wasn't really a leap, but it felt like it -- out of bed, dressed, and made it to the church on time. I knew something was up because Robert wasn't there, and then I saw the printed order for the Office of the Departed on the stall in front of me. No details yet, but in regard to prayer, the details can wait. Our job was to pray the Divine Office for William. And so we did.

After Matins Bede, the Prior, called us together in the sacristy to tell us what had happened. As the day went on, decisions were made, and by mid-afternoon things were pretty much in place. The funeral itself will be on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Our custom is to cremate and place the ashes in a columbarium in the crypt where Fr. Huntington's tomb is. But we also want to honor the body, so we decided to have the body brought on Wednesday afternoon for a vigil, and then to have a requiem mass instead of Vespers at 5pm. Those observances were very simple, and very moving.

When you've known someone as long as I knew William the memories are bound to be complex. He was in charge of the Guest House when I started visiting Holy Cross, and when I spent most of one summer at Holy Cross he put me to work with some of the brothers. We painted the dark wood in bright primary colors. Very 70s. It was a happy time. It's probably then I realized I might have a vocation. And then I joined, and over the years more involved interactions with William ensued. He was, among other things, Superior of OHC for 9 years.

It's no secret that William had a problem with addiction. He practically made his it his trademark. He did a lot of wonderful ministry as a result of his efforts at recovery. A lot of lives were changed for the better. I think this is what lay at the core of his gifts -- his knowledge of himself and his limitations, and his ability to be empathetic with others.

When I was a parish priest I presided at a lot of funerals. I almost always ended up saying something like this, which is true of all of us, and certainly true of William:

The human mind and heart are a mystery. Just about the time we think we know someone through and through, there's a surprise. We never know each other completely. But God does. He knows everything about us, and not only the things we have done and said and thought, but the things we might have done and said and thought, and all the infinite consequences of each of them. He knows every road not taken, and somewhere in his wisdom knows what we might have been, if only. And the miracle is, knowing all that, looking straight into our heart and knowing it complete, in fact, better than we know it ourselves, he loves us. That's the miracle.

So, end of sermon. Or at least until the next time.

The interesting thing is that as I have gone through William's death time, I find the complexities of my relationship with him softening. Perhaps at times like this God gives us the grace of a little bit of his wisdom. When someone we have been involved with much of our life dies, we can recast our minds and hearts, and in just a small way, with the eyes of God, see the person God loved and loves. I'd like the grace to do it more often and earlier.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Becoming Poor

The last week has been wild for everyone with even the smallest interest in the economy. Because of my various responsibilities over the years, I have acquired the habit of watching the markets and putting my finger in the air to see what the breeze is doing. I don't have to tell you that it is scary.

The last time something like this happened to me was in my first parish. The parish had a little money socked away, largely from the sale, ill-advised in my opinion, of the rectory years before I got there. It was invested in so-called junk bonds, which actually produced pretty high returns quarter after quarter, remarkably stable over most of the time I was rector. During the autumn of 1999 most of the Vestry decided that it was time to increase our returns by increasing the value of the capital. Stories of churches that had seen fabulous returns were told. And so, despite my urgings, it was decided to get into a risky but potentially high-growth technology mutual fund at Merrill Lynch. Well, you can guess the rest. March, 2000 and it tanked. We went from a more or less guaranteed $17,000 a year to zilch, overnight. People who were happy to proclaim their expertise got very quiet, and the rest had no stomach to talk about it. It became The Thing That Didn't Happen. And the parish had a lot less money.

I would like to say that this made everyone wiser. It didn't. It did not increase the capacity for making do with less. It did not increase selflessness. It did increase anxiety and all that can flow from that. I am afraid of the same thing happening again.

Monks believe in poverty. We may not practice it very well. In fact, we may be as bourgeois, even as haut bourgeois, as any around us. But at least we proclaim poverty as a virtue. And in doing so, more than once I have heard my profession described as crazy.

At its best I think monasticism is the practice of working together in an organized discipline of simplicity for the Gospel. This takes a number of characteristic forms, usually expressed in the vows. For Benedictines the vows are Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Life. The first two are pretty straightforward. The third is a complex matter. Conversatio morum is the Latin in Benedict. Literally it means something like "completely turning your habits around". Included in this are chastity and poverty, but also a whole raft of other things, like how you use your time, how you relate to other people, where you find your values, how you choose to think and speak, and on and on. Poverty is just one of these many values system changes.

But it is an important one. Benedict knew, and all "successful" monks know too, that a person's value is not, is never, determined by what he or she has. In direct opposition to "the world" on this score, the monastic movement makes a virtue of exactly the opposite: How little can you get along with? How much of what you have can you share or give away? How little is the big question, not How much.

If you have read this blog for a while, you must know what a challenge this is to me. There is an art to monastic living. And part of the art is knowing how and when to give what one has to others. Anthony of Egypt began his monastic career hearing the Gospel injunction to the rich young man: "Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me". He did. He sold his property and then made careful provision with it for his sister, for the people of his extended family, for the community of workers who surrounded his parents' farm and made its life possible. He didn't just strew it about indiscriminately but used it wisely for the future. In doing so he seems to have created a mutually supportive community, because all through his career as a hermit, people helped him as he helped them, with food and other things he genuinely needed.

When a community of monks work together and share and are content with little, even with less, then economic disaster has another valence. It is not the end of things. It is a storm to be weathered, a lean time, to be faced calmly, intelligently and in confidence that what is truly needful will be given by the Lord. If it keeps on and gets worse, we won't hide our heads in the sand and pretend it didn't happen. We'll just get thinner and work harder and be more creative and have more opportunities to pray and serve each other. An economic storm is a time to look to our communities and strengthen them with what we each have, and to take care of each other.

Holy Cross went through some really tough economic times, beginning in the early 1980s. The signs were there to see some years earlier, but it was a dramatic loss in investment values that galvanized us. We had to change. We had to organize ourselves to make a living, and bit by bit we did. It wasn't easy, and not everyone stayed on board as we turned the ship around. But in the end working together produced more than a modest renewed prosperity. It produced habits of work and accountability and realism and loving, honest mutuality that have remained with us. It's not news that most people want to hear, but poverty can be good for people. You learn who you really are, what you really can do, and how to trust each other.

I would like to think that how a monastic community reacts to real poverty has something of value to offer to others. I think in Holy Cross we'll have some opportunities to turn our customary habits around in the face of the loss which is almost certainly on the way. I pray that if this present crisis endures and deepens, we will meet it with increased courage and confidence born from the authentic springs of our tradition. I pray that as we struggle with our real difficulties in faith and mutual love, we may be able to find in our poverty gifts to share with others whose economic lives are shrinking as well.

Monday, October 6, 2008

On going back.

I've just returned from the last in a series of trips back to New York City. The first was to lead a long-planned Eucharist and preach for the New York Diocesan Daughters of the King. The second was to chair a meeting of the Board of the House of the Redeemer. And the third was to be with a clergy group which meets monthly for lunch and a presentation. All this between Sept. 26 and today, Oct. 6, about a week and a half.

The trips were superficially quite similar. First get to the Poughkeepsie train station, a trip made easier now by a new shuttle bus every two hours or so from Highland, about 4 miles down the road from the monastery. Then the always-beautiful 90 minute (more or less) train ride to the City, then to the destination. And the reverse coming back.

The DOK program was at St. Edward's, so I stayed there. I have left my furniture in the rectory apartment for David Bryan Hoopes, OHC, who is the interim priest there, and who has invited me to use the guest room when I come to the City. So there I was, back again. Same church, same altar, same sacristy, same parish hall space for the lunch, same people, the usual food. It all seemed the same. Except for me. A strange feeling.

The second trip was for the first meeting of the House of the Redeemer Board since my move. Many people didn't understand that I had already moved, and some of them don't know what OHC and the Monastery really are. Distance has made the frequent contacts I had with the House and its staff rarer, and the dynamic has changed. I can't give it the same attention I did when I lived just 14 blocks north. I've been President of the Board for 4 years, and so I indicated it might be time to think about someone else for next year's election, as I will have served 5 years. It was all fine, but subtly different. Then I had dinner with Carl Sword, a member of OHC who lives and works in NYC, and stayed overnight with him. A different space than I was used to, and dramatically New York -- the light from the top of the Chrysler Building shone into the window all night. Then a walk up Third Avenue to Grand Central -- the same trip but a different context.

And then today. A congenial group, some of whom had got the message, others of whom had not. All of them friends, the event in a familiar place, but then afterward, instead of back to 109th Street and the familiarity of St. Edward's rectory, it was off to the train station and back up the Hudson to my new home. And then, waiting at the Park and Ride in Highland and realizing gradually that there had been a mixup. Perfectly understandable, and actually the wait was enjoyable -- fresh air, quiet, a chance to read. But after almost an hour the beginnings of a sense of abandonment. I wasn't abandoned, of course. I called and one of the brothers quickly and kindly picked me up -- the misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, and here I am, home at last and safe and sound and comfortable typing this blog entry. I think this experience was slightly dislocating, bringing up feeling of possible abandonment because leaving things behind was the theme of the day.

I was asked to help represent the Order at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Detroit in 1988. General Convention is quite wonderful for about three days, as one sees old friends and renews acquaintances and so forth, but about the middle of the 10 day meeting the joy diminishes and the tedium begins. So I jumped at the chance some friends offered to drive to East Lansing and see Michigan State. I had graduated in 1969 and had not returned in 19 years. We arrived and I went from place to place, still physically much the same as when I had been an undergraduate. But of course it was all changed. The classroom where I had studied Milton with Prof. Lawrence Babb was still there. But I was different and Babb was long gone, I'm sure. We went to 525 M.A.C. Avenue, Beal House, a cooperative I had lived in for two years and been president of as a Senior. I knocked on the door and a young woman answered. There was a change! I told her who I was and she invited me in and I looked around. The living room still had the same very red carpet that seemed old when I was there many years before. She, however, looked at me like some old fossil returned to life. So I gave her a little money for beer for the members of the house (she was pleased), thanked her and was on my way.

It was like being a ghost. I was there but I wasn't there. Certainly not as I once was. St. Edward's and New York City aren't like that yet, and I hope they never will be. I want to have an ongoing relationship with both. But it will be different. It will be based in the present, not a memory but a reality. How do those I have left in New York feel about me? How does anyone feel when change happens and relationships shift and people move? There is sadness as well as joy in change, even change that happens for positive reasons. And I realize how much love I still have for St. Edward's, for the Redeemer, for the group.

But, still, the feeling on these visits was already beginning to seem akin to the visit to MSU. I know that as I live into my new life here, their reality will change, but I want it to be real. I don't want to wait years and then go back as a revivified fossil!

One of the disciplines of contemplative and monastic spirituality is to be in the present moment -- not drifting into memory or imagining the future but concentrating on the reality of now. The past is gone. We can rearrange our memories mentally, and that can be useful and even therapeutic. But the physical reality is tougher, and has changed and kept right on without us. It can never be the same again. One mark of being spiritually alive, I think, is to love the past, but to live in the present. I certainly understand that better today.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fathers and sons.

One of the things about being a monastic celibate is that you don't get to have children, unless you did that before you entered the monastery. In my case, when I entered I was 26, fresh from finishing my PhD at Cornell, and completely unattached and without issue, as they say. From time to time I think about that, mostly when there are especially well-behaved children around, or at sentimental occasions like the Christmas Pageant. I love children, but to be honest, mostly in the abstract, and without having to do the heavy lifting. Thank God for good parents!

So something odd happened last weekend. We had a lovely group of retreatants from several parishes, and one of them was a friend, Carol (I'll leave off her last name -- her friends will know who she is). Carol is an Associate of the Order, and knows us fairly well. Someone remarked to her how alike Br. Scott and I look. In fact, we do. Light red hair, going slightly grey. Short beard. A little jowly under the chin, a little more prosperous around the middle than perhaps we might like to be. Both in large part Scottish by descent.

So Carol shot back, Well, they ought to. They're father and son. To which the respondent, not perceiving the wit, said, Oh I don't think so. Adam doesn't look old enough to be Scott's father. (Thank you!) Anyway, Scott couldn't be -- there's only a 10 year difference in our ages.

This was retailed around, and Scott told me himself. We had a good laugh, thinking up various witty comebacks should it arise again. I thought it was just as well that Carol said I was the father and not Scott. Scott was not especially amused at the thought of trading places. And there it rested for a while, a pleasant little piece of lighthearted fun.

I thought it was over, but a few hours later, I found myself looking at Scott and wondering what it would be like if he actually were my son. And I was surprised that I was getting choked up with affection for Scott, who is an extraordinarily gifted man, generous and kind and fun. And I found that if I had been his father, which I was emotionally imagining myself to be for the moment, I would have been very, very proud of him. Very glad of his life. Very happy to be his father.

Of course, I'm not, and so that reverie soon came to an end. But it set up a kind of spiritual what-if scenario. What if we were in fact related like that to others? What if we could put aside the functional relationships and replace them with the affection and tenderness and disinterested pride of a parent for a child, of a member of a loving and supportive family, rejoicing in each other's gifts and deeds?

In all this I had a momentary vision of what monastic community can be. The love and pride and respect I felt (and feel) for Scott can take root and grow. I'm not his father and he's not my son, but the love we each have for God can create new relationships that transcend the more partial ones of this world.

Jesus invites us into a new relationship with him, one not of father and son, or of master and servant, or even of teacher and disciple, with their levels of inequality, but, almost shockingly, one of mutual regard, to be friends. In John 15:12, he says, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. Christ's directive, his commandment, is to love. Living the new life in Christ, living in love, can make everything new.

Community life is, at its best, a life of people who live together in love, as Friends of Christ. I'll never be Scott's father. But that imaginative moment has opened up to me something truly wonderful -- depths of possibility in monastic life I had not felt so strongly before. Thank you, Carol.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Monasteries have guests. Some have a lot, others have few. But I have never heard of a monastery that did not have any.

St. Benedict has a whole chapter (53) in his Rule on "The Reception of Guests", and since it is one of the longer chapters, it seems important. There's a lot of advice that's good even today. But the whole thing is prefaced by a wonderful statement: "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35)."

Over the years Holy Cross has found that guest ministry is a ministry we do well, and that lots of people respond well to it. There is a practical component to it, of course. To make a living some monasteries make jam or bread or cheese, or even fruitcake, as our dear friends the Camaldolese in Big Sur, CA, do. We welcome guests.

I was Prior of Mount Calvary (Santa Barbara) in the 80's and learned there the wonderful blessing that guest ministry can be. All kinds of groups and individuals find their way to the monastery for a day or an overnight or a weekend or most of the week. They are all interested in quiet and prayer on some level or they would not have come. Many of course already know the monastic community and have become friends, and others are quite new. It's not hard to spot the new ones. They're the ones looking around, flipping the pages of the breviaries in Chapel with a lost expression or a furrowed brow. As their time at the monastery unfolds, most of them relax and begin to go with the flow, and by the end of their time, they often seem thoroughly at home.

As guests adjust to monastic worship and community life, so the monastic community adjusts to them. Sometimes this is simple. A smile to an old friend, adjusting the conversation at supper to include a person new to us, noticing changes, catching up, answering simple questions (where's the ladies' room is a popular one).

But sometimes the adjustments are more involving. Today is a good example. A large group began to arrive in the late afternoon. They weren't all here when the usual time for clearing supper things came. Several of the extended community of the monastery were busy and going to be absent from Compline for various reasons -- a meditation group, a twelve step meeting, an EFM class -- and a couple of the others were busy getting ready to orient the group. Most of the rest of us were doing dishes, which was clearly taking longer than normal.

I suppose we could have insisted that this group adhere to our schedule. Get here by six, finish eating by 6:30, everyone into the Chapel at 7:25 for meditation and Compline.

But something else happened. As a group we realized that some of these folks would be late and would need a little something to eat. We were thin on the ground. So the brother in charge decided that we would do the dishes as best we could, we would leave the food out in the pantry for the latecomers, and we would dispense Compline and say it privately. Br. Bernard volunteered to come back a little later and put the food away.

Now I don't want to encourage potential guests to dawdle when they visit us! We do need to try to keep to the timetable, for everyone's benefit. But we were faced with a need. We met it by being flexible.

If Christ came to our monastery and was a little late for supper, what would we do? He informs us in the very same chapter of Matthew that "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me". Tonight I feel we inconvenienced ourselves for Christ.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


When I moved from Anaheim to NYC on May 1, 2001, Bishop Grein generously paid for the move. I did cleanup and some packing, but Pink's Movers of Pasadena did the heavy lifting. And when I had unpacked my things a few weeks later on 109th Street, I realized that the apartment I had moved into in New York was about twice the size of the house I had lived in back in Orange County, leaving out the garage.

In the seven years since that move I did what I suspect most Americans do -- I accumulated things. Rarely a lot of things at once. A book here, a cd there, a set of sheets, some glasses, some clothes. But over time they add up. Perhaps the most involved acquisiton was a set of musical kudu horns I brought home from South Africa, thinking vaguely that we might get a youth group together to play catchy South African melodies on them. Not.

So when it came time to move, well, one word really says it all: More.

I'm pretty organized when I want to be, so I went to work. The food pantry next door gave me about two dozen knocked down Kellogg's Apple Jacks cartons, and the Director of the House of the Redeemer came through with half a dozen boxes as well. I soon became proficient at taping box bottoms and learned the arts of packing. Three trips later and most of the stuff was moved to West Park. After I arrived for good on the 31st of August, I began the process of nesting. Which I have enjoyed.

St. Benedict is basically against Stuff. He devotes an entire chapter (33) to the subject. "We mean that, without an order from the Abbot, no one may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as his own, nothing at all -- not a book, writing tablets or stylus -- in short, not a single item, especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies or wills."

Father Huntington is pretty much on the same page. From Chapter 27, on Poverty: "By our vow of poverty not only are we called to a personal surrender of all earthly possessions, saving the cross given to us at our profession, but we are bound to live in the estate of poverty, governing ourselves at all times as having no dependence on earthly resources and ready to endure in submission to God's will the utmost privation even to the loss of life itself."

This is all fairly guilt-inducing. In truth, if I had lived up to this ideal, all I would have had to do is make sure my cross was around my neck and set out on my way. But of course things are never so simple. Even the Venerable Bede was discovered to have Stuff. The saint told young Cuthbert, who wrote the account of Bede's death in a famous letter, "I have a few treasures in my little box: pepper, handkerchiefs and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery to me, so that I can distribute to them these little gifts which God has given me."

"I have a few treasures in my little box... which God has given me." Apart from being one of the proofs that Jarrow did not exclusively follow the Rule of Benedict, this is a delighful frame for monastic Stuff. When I look at the things I have accumulated, they are all treasures. They are all things that God has given me. Every one of them has a story, and so every one of them is a treasure.... Or so I tell myself.

In truth, many of them are treasures, but many of them are just Stuff. One of my spiritual problems is not getting rid of Stuff but hanging on to it. Socks with larger and larger holes. Extra shirts, pants, shoes. Books I haven't finished reading and aren't really necessary for my work. Souvenirs from trips. The class notes from seminary, graduate school, college, even (help me!) a few from high school. I still had piles of Christmas cards from each year spent in East Harlem.

One finds ingenious ways to stow Stuff. Years of careful thinking and arranging made my apartment a miracle of modern placement. And so when the time came, I did not have one little box, but several dozen.

And now a new challenge: greater faithfulness to the call. I suppose I will be writing about simplicity in the course of this blog. When I do, please know that it will be as a student and not as a master.

If there is a consolation in this, for a new novice master supposed to teach the monastic arts of poverty to new monks, it must be in the old adage that the best teachers are the ones who had to struggle with the subject.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why start a blog now?

Why start a blog now? Well, this is an important turning point for my life, and I thought it might
be nice to begin to share experiences and thoughts. The beauty of the web log system is instant publication and distribution, communication with old friends and making new ones along the way.

What is this turning point? Actually, several events have converged.

I have been a monk for exactly 35 years now -- actually, 35 years and one day. I joined the Order of the Holy Cross as a postulant on September 5, 1973. So this blog celebrates an important anniversary for me.

Also, my life has just changed. For the last 16 years I have been what we in OHC call a "monk not in residence" (MNIR) . During that time I have been the priest for two wonderful congregations, St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Anaheim, CA, and The Episcopal Church of St. Edward the Martyr in New York City. In June OHC elected a new Superior, Br. Robert Sevensky, and he asked me to return to living in the community as Novice Master at our monastery in West Park, NY. I spent most of the summer preparing the parish for that change as best I could, taking some much needed vacation and moving. This week I have finally arrived at the monastery and have settled in, ready to begin this new part of my life.

So I thought this would be a good time to start a blog.

And what will I put in this blog? What is it for? Well, partly vanity, I suppose. It's nice to see what you've written out there in public and get a reaction. But mostly to share ideas about the monastic and the spiritual life. I like reading and teaching the ancient monastic writings. I like thinking about my life and other people's lives as places where the Holy Spirit enters in and acts. I like the use of memory as a path to understanding. I like being quiet with Scripture. Actually, I like being quiet period. I like preaching and writing, at least in part because when I express myself in those forms, I do some of my best thinking -- feelings and intuitions take shape.

So this is for me as much as for you, to put feelings and thoughts into words, to try them out and see if they make sense. And to share that, in dialogue if you wish, to send it out and see what it might do.