In today’s parable, Jesus paints the picture of two people. A judge, a man with authority who does not fear God nor respect people. He won’t be ashamed. Perhaps accepting a bribe, but otherwise immoveable. A widow comes repeatedly to this judge. As we see often in scripture, widows are most vulnerable and to be cared for. In Middle Eastern culture, men represented women in court. That she is here means she has no male relative to assist her.[i] On one hand, she is weak and vulnerable. Yet she is present and persistent, not accusing, asking for justice.
In Middle Eastern culture, there is also a social code of respect such that women sometime have unusual access that men do not. Kenneth Bailey, who taught seminary for many years in Lebanon, tells of seeing a violent militia take up residence in a neighborhood. An elderly woman came regularly telling the guards to go away. They responded by politely telling her to not be upset. If a man had done so, he would have been shot.[ii]
The widow keeps coming asking for justice. The judge relents, giving her what she asks so that he is no longer bothered.
Jesus selected a small group to particularly teach and transform. As Jesus traveled, he saw and called an unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Matthew, whom we remember today, is an even more striking choice. As a tax collector working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community.
Walking along, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Matthew. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those looked down on or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Matthew, saw a human with dignity and worth. Matthew, an outcast seen and invited in, experienced Jesus’ mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident, serious, secure religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep yourselves clean.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew followed Jesus to learn what this meant spending his days Peter, James, John, and other unlikely companions.
How do we learn mercy? Here are three ways: Look, Honor, and Receive. Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
We remember St. Matthew, one whom Jesus selected, shaped, and sent with love. Following, we continue to learn mercy. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Remember the great salvation night when God brought our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. As hundreds of thousands with neighbors and livestock, they fled. They were pushed out, having to leave quickly in the moment. “They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.”
They had not prepared food for the journey. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
1 Kings 1:19-15a
Rising global tensions and almost striking Iran. Mass deportations planned. Tragic accidents. Migrants fleeing. Children held by our government in despicable conditions. Political clashes, lies, illness and personal loss. With a week like this, with a life like this, remember Elijah.
Elijah ran for dear life into the wilderness. Queen Jezebel was trying to kill him. In a cave on the mountain, God compassionately asks: What are you doing here, Elijah? What brings you here? What is on your heart? Elijah is honest: I’ve done my best for you, but the people refuse. The rulers destroyed everything. They killed all my companions, and now they’re trying to kill me.
Have you been there? Been zealous. But now run down. Run after. Alone and afraid. Ready for it all to end? Have you at the same time longed to be seen, to be heard, to be loved? How have you reached out to receive it? Perhaps you have invested time and travel, even a great distance, to be with a safe, trustworthy person, with whom you can be honest.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[i]In dying, we live. Anything would be more palatable. Nothing is so essential. We must surrender, losing and letting go, being vulnerable again and again, dying to ourselves in order to live. This Holy Week we face Jesus on the cross.
When serving as a hospital chaplain, I found it exhausting continually listening to heartache. One day I realized Jesus was listening to the same heartache yet not for a few minutes per person and not just how many people I met. Jesus knows everyone and listens to all hearts, to everyone sick and dying, to all who are grieving, to each in any kind of suffering, and indeed to us all. Jesus draws the whole world to himself with a loving ear in a listening embrace.
All of us need and glory in the cross. Jesus invites each to die to self-sufficiency and secrecy. Jesus invites us to pray the whole truth of our lives, naming what weighs us down, our grief and questions, our wounds and concerns, as well as joys, thanks, and desires. Jesus listens directly and in the flesh through other people. Jesus, exposed and vulnerable on the cross, invites us to expose ourselves, share our inner life and struggles, pray in the dark, and pray our hearts.
Telling our stories can be painful, like touching wounds, a kind of death. Like wheat dying to bear fruit, safe exposure of our story heals. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. Good listeners help by attending to our stories with their surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Listeners help us hear how these pieces together form us.
Retreat at Home
Taking a retreat does not necessarily mean going off to a monastery. Retreat can happen nearby, including at home. The core of creating retreat is setting aside normal work and routines in order to focus on personal prayer. Create retreat for yourself with a few hours, a day, or a few nights.
We Brothers create one day of retreat a month for ourselves at the Monastery. Since corporate prayer is our central work, Brothers pray together less on our retreat days. We reduce our schedule by not praying Morning Prayer or Compline together. Most of us sleep in and go to bed early. We do not host guests. Though we do have a Eucharist and Evening Prayer, no one preaches, and we spend the whole day – meals, dishes, and otherwise – in silence in order to honor and not interrupt one another’s prayer.
To create your own retreat at home: what would it take for you schedule a day off from most of your usual routine and instead focus on personal prayer? What would you reduce? To what extent, in what space or during what time could you be uninterrupted? How could you cultivate silence?
The first gift of retreat is often sleep. What would it take to go to bed early, to let yourself sleep in, and to take a nap? I call these three “the retreat trinity.” After receiving these, when our body is refreshed, we are more able to hear what God is speaking.
While retreat can happen anywhere, it may be easier or more helpful for you to get away, as home can be so distracting. Consider going to a park, a botanical garden, a forest, or a beach. Stroll and wonder at beauty. Stop to gaze and listen. What kind of places invite you to listen, to pray, to connect with God? It might not be outdoors, and it might not be quiet and away from people. Perhaps go to an art museum, a library, or a church.
When guests come to the Monastery, some stay inside, some walk along the river, and some walk the quiet streets nearby. Others enjoy the bustle of Harvard Square. One of my friends who enjoys silence also feels drawn to God when beholding the diversity of people in the city. Perhaps, like him, you may feel drawn to pray in a coffee shop or walking city streets with lots of people.
If you are able to go away somewhere for a night or more, wonderful. This is like a vacation, a reconnection, a restoration, an intervention with God. You might go solo, or you might go with a friend (if you do, choose if and when to talk and share some time together). Turn off your devices. Do one thing at a time. Savor food. This will help you slow down and pay attention.
Retreat can even be something to share with those with whom you live. What might it be like to cultivate silence together at home for an afternoon or for a day? Perhaps you could choose to not talk, not listen to music, not watch devices, and yet still be together. Build a fire, do your own reading, journaling, gazing, and praying. Then reflect later about your experiences and share what you’re grateful for. I know some housemates who tried this for a season. They doubted the idea but found it doable and refreshing. This practice might be as regular as a weekly Sabbath or a monthly or quarterly retreat.
We claim times of retreat, above all, in the hopes of setting aside more time for personal prayer. In our Monastery, each Brother generally sets three periods for personal prayer along with recreative activities like walks and gentle exercise. Four times a year, our monthly retreat day focuses on fasting and intercession. We fast throughout the day and, in the afternoon, take a turn of an hour in intercession before the reserved Sacrament at our side altar in the St. John’s Chapel. On your own retreat, pray as you already do, in whatever form is already familiar: with or without words, eyes open or closed, standing, sitting, kneeling, in another shape, or moving. Set a few times to pray through the day. Do what you know. And try something different.
If you have been on retreat at the Monastery or away elsewhere, what was most meaningful to you? What are one or two aspects of that experience you could choose to recreate for yourself?
Retreat, and any particular retreat, may take many forms and locations. How to begin? First, consider places nearby, even in your own residence:
- What spaces calm and refresh you?
- What activities help you slow down, rest, and listen?
- Where do you feel safe and secure?
- What invites you to encounter and struggle with God?
- What setting prompts thinking deeply?
The space you choose need not be far away. What’s more important is choosing to stop and spend time in those spaces. Stop and breathe. Stop and listen. Stop and pray.
Then, as you craft your retreat time, consider what you will stop, and what will help you to stop. What would support you in putting aside your daily work and routines in order to focus on prayer? How would companionship help or hinder you either in the planning, provision, or experience of the retreat?
Retreat is much more than going away and it does not require going far away. Start small. Try and try again. May you be creative and intentional as you choose time and space for retreat. You have what you need, and you are worth it. God waits with delight to be with you, to refresh and deepen you.
Br. Luke Ditewig
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Jesus tells a graphic, gripping tale of a father and two sons. Each defies our expectations. It is more stark considering the Middle Eastern cultural context.[i]
The younger son says: “Father, give me my inheritance,” and the father gives him property. Asking for an inheritance is saying: I wish you were dead. It’s total rejection points out scholar Kenneth Bailey. A father would deny such a request and likely expel one for being so offensive. Instead, he lets the son break his heart, his family, and reputation by giving him the property.[ii]
Just a few days later, the son packs up to leave. Bailey notes property usually takes months to sell. To do it so quickly and walk off with cash is significant. The son humiliated his father by asking for the inheritance. The neighboring community quickly does the transaction to kick him out; they expel him.[iii]
The son slowly squanders all his wealth in a distant country, and he eventually runs out. So broke, this Jewish boy ends up feeding pigs and finds himself starving. There at the bottom, he wakes up a little by hunger: “My father’s hired hands have plenty to eat.” He forms a plan to save himself.[iv]“I’ll return and say I’m not worthy to be your son. Treat me as a hired hand.”
The son returns. While still far off, the father saw him approaching. The father had kept hoping, was waiting and looking. What would happen when the son came close, when people saw him, the one who rejected his father, whom they kicked out? The father runs to his son, humiliating himself—for men did not run. Bailey says the father ran in order to save his son from the neighbors who with good reason might gather as mob to taunt or abuse him.[v]
John 15: 1, 6-17
Today is the feast of St. Matthias, chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Perhaps he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out. Hardly anything is written about him. All we know is Matthias had been with them since Jesus came among them. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably was not seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. I suspect they sought stability. They chose one who had been with them. They trusted Matthias would remain with them. Remaining, staying put through loss and grief, is hard. Our culture increasingly offers and expects mobility frequently adjusting where we live, work, and the kind of work we do.
Someone asked Antony, founder of desert monasticism, “What must one do in order to please God?” Antony said to stay focused on God, live according to Scripture, and “in whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.”[i]Do not easily leave it. Then and now we are prone to leave. There is a hunger for and wisdom in stability: remain, stick it out, and keep finding God here.
Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Today we remember the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Brothers who have gone before us. We remember them one by one reading aloud their obituaries at Compline.
They came from various backgrounds with a range of interests. Writers, poets, architects, artists, book-binders, and insect enthusiasts who served in England, Scotland, India, South Africa, Japan, Canada, and across the United States.
They were pastors, preachers, spiritual directors, teachers, retreat leaders and more. Sometimes much at once. I like the story of John Hawkes who during the Great Depression presided at a marriage, baked and iced the wedding cake, and supplied the rings.