Friday, February 27, 2009

Fasting And Abstinence

Friday. A day to remember and revisit the beautiful tragedy of Calvary.

Christ’s agony in the garden. The scourging at the pillar. Christ being crowned with a crown of thorns. The Lord carrying a cross much heavier than its wooden composition. Christ’s Crucifixion.

Nothing pretty. So much pain. Interior and physical.

Globally, every Friday in the Catholic Church is set apart as a day of fasting and abstinence as a means to respectfully honor that day when Christ’s physical life was totally consummated. Somewhere along the way the American Bishops concluded that American Catholic’s are too weak to endure such rigors and lifted the element of abstinence on Friday's except during the season of Lent. I must admit that I don’t understand their reasoning. I accept it. I must accept it. But I do not understand it.

Imagine that. While impoverished and undernourished Third World Catholic’s are required to fast and abstain from meat on Friday’s throughout the year, spoiled and gluttonous American’s are able to savor a steak or pork chop. We are, albeit, encouraged to offer an extra prayer or make some other token offering.

Me? Weak and often undisciplined me? Though I don’t understand their reasoning, and judicially I really don’t have to understand their reasoning, I’m grateful that the Bishop’s have lifted the “pain of sin” from eating meat on Friday’s the rest of the year. Though I do not seek to justify my human American condition, I confess that I am a lazy and undisciplined American.

It just makes me wonder though. How real, how significant, how relevant is the Crucifixion in the hearts and minds of people? Is the Historical Event so far past that its Reality has faded into historcal oblivion or been hidden by the fog of life in these modern times?

“The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.”[1]

Friday. One day. One day out of seven. One day to fast and abstain. Six to feast.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

On me.

[1] RB 49:1-3

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pier Pressure

I finished up work Tuesday afternoon around three. It was more like arriving at a stopping point, a good place to stop and pick up again. Pressure washing. Something that I don’t mind doing. But this house involved a lot of ladder work and I was pretty exhausted.

I had been preparing myself for the beginning of Lent, this season of reflection, recollection, and repentance. On the drive home I was thinking particularly that Wednesday would be a day of fasting and abstinence. Ash Wednesday. Not a Holy Day of Obligation but, still, an important day in the life of the Church. Much more than just another opportunity to live up to the Catholic reputation of eating fish.

Thanks to a couple of cast nets, we enjoy a nice supply of fish. Throwing a net is a pleasurable thing to do. It’s also something that demands some physical exertion, something that I was thinking about avoiding after working all day. There’s fish in the freezer. No. I’d go try to catch some fresh even if it meant throwing the net, pulling it in, and then cleaning fish once I got them home.

I usually plan my net fishing around what the tide is doing. By minding the tide I do, more times than not, catch fish. This time I didn’t check the tide chart. I just loaded my stuff in the truck and went. When I got to the fishing pier I met three older fellows. Likable locals and it was obvious that drinking intoxicating beverages was as much a part of their outing as fishing. They had been much more successful at getting bent than they were at catching fish. One had caught nothing. One had ruined his net on a snag. One had caught one fish.

He had two fish in his bucket. One had been given to him by someone earlier. They were picking up and getting ready to leave and before they left he put his two fish in my bucket. I was grateful and expressed my appreciation.

Net fishing is usually productive at this spot when the water is moving in or out with the tide. It was almost still. I worked my net for a while without any success. Another fellow joined me on the small pier. He worked his net. Nothing. I was beginning to think that I’d put my two gift fish into his bucket and pull out some frozen fish to thaw overnight.

As I stood there with my net made up and ready to throw I began to think. My thoughts were more in the form of prayer thought, thought directed toward God. I thought, “Lord, we are trying to be faithful to the expectations and ideals of the Church where fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday is concerned. And we are trying our best to provide our food through our own labor. It would really be nice to catch some fish.”

I threw my net. It opened nicely into a perfect circle, hit the water, and then settled to the bottom. I felt something bumping in the net as I pulled on the hand line. When I hauled it onto the pier it held 4 nice fish. I was humbled and grateful for the provision.

Fishermen. It seems like we are never satisfied. Hey. If I caught these 4 maybe I’ll catch 4 more the next throw. Friday’s coming. I’ll need fish for Friday. More fish. I need more fish. Keep throwing the net. And I did. Throw the net. Pull the net. Numerous times without netting another fish. Thinking all the while that maybe, just maybe, grace for the day was already in my bucket. Accept that grace, be grateful for the enough that you have, and hold greed at bay.

I felt convicted. It wasn’t a gripping and arresting conviction but conviction nonetheless. I stuffed my net in the bucket and came home. There’s plenty of time for fishing between now and Friday.

“Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of gratitude.”[1]

Deo Gratias.

[1] From a sermon by Saint Leo the Great, Liturgy of the Hours, p. 60

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Riding The Wheel

Tuesday of the 7th Week in Ordinary Time. Shrove Tuesday in the year of our Lord 2009. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, 40 days of reflection and preparation for Holy Week and the grand celebration of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.

It’s all beautiful. I appreciate the wisdom of the Church in setting forth these liturgical seasons that give focus. These are seasonal focal points that assist in maintaining a distinct and holistic orientation in the life of Christ, much like a holy wheel of life that is both fixed and constantly revolving around its Axle, a process of continual death and rebirth.

St. Gregory’s commentary on Ecclesiastes 3:1-22[1] could not be more appropriate or on time for such an occasion as Ash Wednesday Eve. Or, for that matter, my own personal point of revolution on the wheel of life.

I am, anymore, simply content to ride the wheel. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem like I’m going anywhere or getting anywhere. The wheel, on its own, generally revolves slowly, except on the calendar. I’m learning to not hurry the wheel. I’m learning to allow it its slow but effective process that may or may not coincide with the 12 month calendar. I may not always see the occurring progress but the process is sure. The process is certain.

At times it seems like I’m stuck in the mud. But when I carefully look at the mud I discover that it too is part of the process. There must be something that I need to learn in the mud, maybe something that I failed to learn the last time I was in the mud. It’s interesting how many times it’s the same mud that bogs me down. I’ll learn the intended lesson one day. Maybe.

Here a little. There a little. Breathing in the Breath of Life. Appreciating life's unfolding nature. Praying and working one day at a time. Enjoying the desert. Continually arriving at a re-beginning. Distinct but incomplete arrivals.

It will be a good Lent.

[1] Liturgy of the Hours, p. 236-237

Monday, February 23, 2009

The First Word

Sounds are important.

The wind in the trees. The gurgle of water flowing in a small stream. The rustle of something in the underbrush. Thunder in the distance. The faint beginning of a squeak in a bearing. Each has a message. Each of these, and a myriad of other sounds, tells something. Messages that we miss when we aren’t listening.

Listen. The first word in the Rule of St. Benedict says more in truth than entire volumes written by many modern authors suggesting themselves to be spiritual directors. This is not intended to be a scathing remark. It is, at least in my mind and in the realm of my own reality, more simply a matter of fact in a syncretistic faith-world.

One of the predicaments, something that is really an inverted blessing, that I discover inherent in attempting to follow the Rule of St. Benedict is its potential for creating a desert effect. It has the potential to create an environment both within yet apart from its surrounding environs. Although it fits perfectly into any geographical setting, it concerns itself not so much with natural geographical landscapes as it does with the deep interior regions of the conscience.

There is, albeit, a distinct relationship between these that motivates and propels me toward jaunts in isolated woods and wilderness where I feel more naturally at home than in these cities and suburbs that surround me.

In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.[1]

The parallelism seems rather obvious, the natural and spiritual ramifications.

[1] Isaiah 43:19

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Desert

I really have a difficult time “playing the game” anymore. Any game. It matters not which one it is. Political, economic, social, or religious. All the tit for tat that so easily usurps the genuine place of the Consuming Fire. Though I have a difficult time with it, I find myself always dancing on the edge of something that makes me uncomfortable, sharpening my awareness that though God is in his heaven all is not right in the world.

Personally, I find the life of Christ and his teachings incompatible with all the hypocritical poppycock that fills the world’s societies, parties and factions bent on conquering or dominating one another in one fashion or another. Fluffiness. Stuffiness. Arrogance. Deceit. None of these describe Christ or the way of life taught by him. He chose not the high and mighty for his consort. Rather, we find him surrounded primarily by a much more lowly crowd, generally despicable in the eyes of the more elite. Harlots. Tax collectors. Fishermen. Ruffians. At least one thief that we know of. But not many high and mighty.

JESU, the beauty the angels see, the ear’s ecstatic minstrelsy, the nectar of the heavenly home, the lips’ delicious honeycomb:

It’s no wonder to me that those early men and women ran to the desert once the Church became a respectable and popular place to hang out. They ran to escape all but their own selves where they could reckon with these selves. They also ran to encounter the Only Fire that could purge the dross that contaminated their selves.

I find it no wonder that their dire and stark example opened the monastic avenue within the realm of Christendom. Monks and monasteries. Masses of men and women religious owning nothing. Sharing everything. Vows. Poverty, chastity, obedience, stability. Until death did their soul depart from their mortal frame. Much has changed concerning these ideals. People want some social cause to follow that diverts their attention from the real interior issue.

For they who taste thee hunger sore, and they who drink thee thirst the more, desiring naught below, above, save Jesus whom their spirits love.

I struggle. I wrestle every day. I have a deep longing for the Saviour and I recognize the reality that the more I partake, the more I enjoin myself to him and him to me, the more I long for him. Yet so much remains amiss within me. The journey is ever a beginning. There is always still far to go. I am full and empty in the same breath. My enemies never give up their pursuit, like hounds fast on a trail.

I recognize the discord and disharmony within the fabric of my own being, within my own self. It’s as though a part of me is caught in an inescapable steel trap forged in the furnace constructed by the world’s system, a system set on fire with the kindling of desire and fueled by inexhaustible stockpiles of pride and greed. It is a system that baits its victims, coaxes them into the trap that holds them securely while the fire blazes.

Jesu, most desired and dear, the hope of longing spirits here, to thee my earnest tears shall turn, for thee my inmost heart shall yearn.

Room. Plenty of room. Vast fields of room within my interior regions. A landscape of changing seasons, each with its own set of peculiarities. I admit that I'm not the most disciplined disciple. Theory and practice are not always equivalents of one another.

I work at it. Some days, some seasons, discover me more disciplined than others. At times I have no devotional discipline. Life is all too real, pressed upon from every side, most of the time by life’s daily grinding ordeals. I accept and admit my faults without slighting or justifying them and recognize that Reconciliation will ever be a need in my life.

I have, perhaps, finally discovered and entered the desert.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Living In The Dark

There is a natural cycle of day and night that I have no difficulty acclimating to. There is, so it seems, also a spiritual cycle of day and night. I experience great peace during the spiritual daytime. For some reason I think I am accomplishing something in its brightness. I feel inspired to walk in my vocation as an Oblate and have a certain sense of stamina during these seasons that propels me along as though I’ve been gifted with wings.

I’ve learned though that dark nights can fall at any time and catch me by surprise. It seems they often, in one degree or another, come after seasons of brightness and clarity. Things seem to be going so good. One day I’m are on a mountaintop and the next I’ve fallen like an avalanche to the floor of a deep dark valley.

One day I feel like I’m floating on the clouds above the mountain peaks and the next I feel like I’m buried beneath the weight of the mountain. To know the freedom of the Spirit during the brightness of the spiritual daytime on the mountaintop and then to experience the deep heaviness of the spiritual nighttime in the dark valley can be nearly debilitating. There is a certain sense of depression that accompanies it. This heaviness, this season of spiritual nighttime, is often referred to as the dark night of the soul and I ought not to be surprised by it. Who am I to think that I have some immunity?

When I encounter this spiritual nighttime it becomes more difficult to do the same things that I do easily during the spiritual daytime. It becomes harder to pray. I feel like the heavens have become brass and simple prayers become difficult to express. Reading, even reading the Scriptures, becomes more of a chore than a delight. Though I know and am confident that God has not abandoned or taken his Spirit from me it’s difficult, or even impossible, to sense God as a living reality within my own being.

These can be pivotal times. There is a definite turning taking place and I can either yield myself to its process or I can yield to the temptation to fight against it. It’s much easier to fight against the process than it is to simply wait on it to accomplish its divine purpose.

I am afflicted with the human tendency to want to control my destiny, my direction in life, and this is something that the world supports as personal maturity. But personal maturity, in the spiritual sense, has more to do with surrendering to the Greater Will than with insisting upon my will or interest. Nevertheless, not my will. Dark nights are not necessarily unproductive seasons. They are more intended to be productive seasons where egotism, along with its accompanying cousins of pride and selfishness, are carefully pulled from the furrows of life.

Pressing through the darkness, pushing toward a fresh season of daytime, should not become my objective during these more difficult seasons. I do need to continue, perhaps a little more casually, maintaining some fashion of spiritual discipline. My prayers need to be simplified to more childlike expressions of prayer. Devotional reading from the Scriptures, and other resources, need to be taken in smaller measures.

What I do devotionally is important. But the greater importance resides in what God is doing behind the scenes of my life in places and ways that I am not aware of. In this context, the words of a prayer by St. Philaret are very appropriate. “Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all it shall bring. Direct my will. Teach me to pray. And you, yourself, pray in me.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Artifice And The Social Self

“Our service of God and of the Church does not consist only in talking and doing. It can also consist in periods of silence, listening, waiting. Perhaps it is very important, in our era of violence and unrest, to rediscover meditation, silent inner unitive prayer, and creative Christian silence.” (Thomas Merton – Love and Living)

Several years ago, after two and a half decades of attempting to live in the Protestant tradition of active Christian involvement, I dedicated myself personally to a more solitary and contemplative lifestyle. In part, I came to the conclusion that all of life’s circumstances up to that point precipitated this move.

Over these past several years I’ve come to understand this move more and more from the perspective that this is a distinct calling, a vocation that I’ve yielded myself to. I’ve come to understand it as a path that’s been laid out before me as I endeavor to know God through personal union and communion with Him. I’ve also come to understand just how difficult it is to live out this vocation. The world, and sadly the Church as well, simply do not operate on this life-schedule.

There are many dimensions to this thing called silence and we need to be careful what we make of it in our lives. We can use it as an excuse for regression and escape and it can become another means to loss of true identity. Or it can serve as a means to genuine awareness in our lives. It can be a means to self-discovery and unification. It can unify our lives with the life of Christ and this unity can only serve as a means to unify Christ’s Body that’s called his Church. Creative silence can also be a means to unify us with the rest of humanity, to create compassion within us, compassion that moves us to empathize with the emotionally and spiritually broken and downtrodden, a class that is experiencing a growth-bound in recent years with the demise of so many economic illusions.

Most Christian people are never able to divorce themselves from their “social self”. Most fear and avoid silence. In silence we are forced to come face to face with who we really are. In silence we are confronted by many questions about the value of our existence. In silence we find ourselves confronted by the reality and value of our personal commitments.

In the realm of silence we find ourselves confronted by the authenticity of our everyday lives. We can, according to Merton, be “more or less content with an external identity, the social self, which is produced by our interaction with others in the wheeling and dealing of everyday life. But no matter how honest and open we may be in our relations with others, this social self implies a necessary element of artifice.”

The social self becomes addicted to artful devices and stratagem. It always finds itself involved in some sort of base relational deception and trickery as it attempts to advance itself even, especially, in the Christian arena. The harder I work to overcome this beastly artifice, the more I find myself faced with opportunities to hone and practice it. It is, in my estimation, one of life’s most dastardly and deceptive demons, one that disguises itself in many costumes.

The general nature of the Christian experience necessitates, to some degree, interacting with other people. The lives we live affirm and give credence to the lives of others within the arena of faith. The lives we live also offers the world outside the realm of faith an opportunity to view Christ personified in us. What others do with it is none of our business. Our business is to live it. The danger here is that we can so lose ourselves in a world of interaction with others that we fail to discover who we really are and, if we fail to discover who we really are, we will never develop in our true identity.

In Him we live, and move, and have our being. It is in silence – meditating, praying, listening, and waiting – where we personally commune with the one we know as our Source of Life. It is here that we discover our true being and are finally able to relax, to rest, and move about in the realm of spiritual freedom that liberates and restores integrity and genuine Christian character.

From "The Less Worn Path", (c) 2006, David A. Kralik

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

1 + 1

The air is sharp and it’s a little frosty this morning, cool enough to call for that extra layer that makes a difference between feeling cold and feeling just right for the occasion of being outside. The sun is shining and the skies are clear. It’s a beautiful day.

Each new day is a gift.

Each new day will inevitably have some challenges built into it.

Each new day invites us to let go of anxiety, dwell within a mindset of simplicity, experience peace and reproduce its peacefulness.

The matter between my ears must be rather dense because these simple and uncomplicated truths are lessons that I have to continually relearn. It’s not that I forget them.

Life gets busy. Well intentioned people, often with their own well-intentioned agendas, have a way of innocently encroaching. Others aren’t so innocent when they encroach. They do it knowing what they are doing … manipulating, driving home the nails of their agendas. Unexpected tragedies and crises also have a way of factoring their effect into and onto our lives. None of us are immune to them.

One plus one.

Prayer and work.

Simple arithmetic.

Simple life-plan.

Simple. Not easy. But it always comes up with the same answer.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ravens

One presidential administration has been replaced by another one. Some are outraged. Others are hopeful.

Multiple tens of thousands of Americans lost their job this week. Lay offs. Cut backs.

At a job fair in one Florida city 5000 people lined up in the hope of landing some sort of job.

New homes aren’t selling. As far as that goes, neither are lived in homes.

Banks and mortgage companies have been bailed out by the Fed’s to keep them from going belly up, to keep the plastic economy from melting down.

401K accounts aren’t worth what they were a year or two ago. Imaginary earned interest and a lot of principle have just simply evaporated. Imagine that. All the confidence placed in imaginary things. It's happened before but so far I haven't heard of anyone jumping off of high rise buildings.

I read the other day that the average American family spends around $170 dollars a week for groceries. That’s 8,840 bucks a year. That’s not far from 10 grand.

I don’t know where they got their information from but based on what I see in folk’s grocery carts I don’t doubt it. I suppose if they knew what we spend at the grocery store each week they’d label us as being terribly impoverished, living well below the poverty line. That’s funny. If we are all that we certainly aren’t starving ourselves to do it.

I’m not an economist nor do I take stock in what the economists are saying … good or bad. The economic picture is what it is. The “haves” may have less but they still have more than plenty enough. The “have nots” are losing what little they have, struggling more and more, missing making the payments, and just getting by until the Repo Man shows up to tow the car back to the lot. No wonder when the first 170 bucks of average paychecks goes to buy groceries.

I am, rather, more of a survivalist and in one way or another constantly whetting my skills. This, I think, is something engrained in me from my childhood having grown up as one of five children on a small poor family farm where we grew practically everything that went onto our table and into our stomach.

A few packets of seeds arrived in the mail this week: Non-GMO corn for grits and meal and a variety of heirloom pole beans. What we don't eat we'll save for seed for next year. Last spring I planted 15 pounds of potatoes. It wasn’t enough. I’m starting with 20 pounds of seed potatoes this year. Once they are in the ground I may pick up another ten pounds. Fresh home grown sustenance.

Ravens. Wingless ravens. Ravens in disguise. Ravens that bring you the means for many meals instead of dropping a loaf of contaminated bread in your lap. Sometimes my hands are dirty. Sometimes my hands are bloody. Sometimes my hands smell from cleaning fish. Ravens. Ravens nonetheless.

“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in men. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”[1]






[1]Psalm 118:8-9