Today is the first Sunday in the holy season of Lent. ‘I hate Lent!’ So said Jonathan Swift. ‘I hate Lent, with its different diets and herb porridge, and sour devout faces of people who only put on religion for seven weeks.’ I actually like Lent. Many of my brothers would I think say the same. It’s a time to get serious. Not just giving up chocolate. The Jesuit James Martin wrote, ‘Don’t give up chocolate; give up being a jerk! It’s time to get serious about God and our lives. It’s a time to go into the desert of one’s heart to encounter God. A time for deeper prayer, repentance, silence and solitude. To look with unblinking eyes at the state of our lives, our relationships, our world.
The world we live in is a beautiful gift, God’s gift to us. And yet we know that God’s gift has been ravaged and broken. Our greed has plundered the land and damaged the environment. Millions live in abject poverty and hunger. Our wars, as in the Ukraine right now, have and continue to kill and maim and disfigure millions. Our sin has broken and scarred our relationships with one another, broken up families, divided people of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Our world, God’s precious and fragile gift to us is torn and divided violently at every level.
This terrible process is described in the New Testament as the work of ‘diabolos’ or the devil. That Greek word ‘diabolos’ used in the New Testament, literally means, ‘the one who throws apart’. The work of diabolos is essentially to divide, to break up that which was one.
Commemoration of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), Mystic and Writer
In the calendar of the church we remember today an English woman, Evelyn Underhill, born in 1875. She had a vast influence on the spiritual formation of her own generation, and to generations since. In her prolific writing, speaking, and retreat leading she was revered as faithful, as insightful and passionate, as wise and practical, and all of it laced with her disarming humor.[i]
She taught how the “mystical life” is not just for the saints, but for all of us.[ii] Mysticism, for her, is how God is always coming to us in “the Sacrament of the Present Moment.” Pay attention to now. God’s presence is always in the present. Now. There will be “thin places” where God breaks through to you, often mysteriously, in here-and-now. Pay attention to now.
Evelyn Underhill comments on the Gospel lesson we have just heard: Jesus’ saying, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”When you pray, shut the door. “Shutting the door” can be very challenging. She says:
Who is more important? We compare power and privilege, background, connection, skill and status. Earlier in the chapter for today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[i] What’s the top which then defines the whole, including us? We wrestle for rank and worry about worth.
Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Become like children. Change your perspective. Rather than seeking power, skill, and status, acknowledge your need. Ask for help. Let yourself be helped and held. Relish wonder and love without embarrassment. Experiment, imagine, and playfully discover new ways of being. Gaze, dance, build, and fly. Become like children.
Who is more important? Each one. “Welcome one such child in my name, and you welcome me,” says Jesus. Woe to any who would “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus warns. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”[iii]
In the audio for this sermon, we’ve retained the pauses during which the congregation tried out the techniques Br. David Vryhof describes. We hope you’ll follow along and try them too.
This evening we begin a five-part preaching series entitled “Living Prayer.” Each Tuesday night during Lent, one of the brothers will speak about a particular approach to prayer. Our goal is teach these traditional ways of prayer, not only by explaining them but also by demonstrating them. We hope, each week, to offer a short exercise that will engage you with one of these forms of prayer.
“From the earliest days God has given members of our Society the calling and gifts for the ministry of spiritual direction.” (Rule of the Society: Chapter 30.)
The ministry of spiritual direction is very rewarding. The exercise of this ministry is for me a deeply humbling experience and one which I never take for granted. As the Benedictine writer Matthias Neumann put it, “It is an immense responsibility to take on the guidance of human lives, especially the sifting, discerning, and supporting of the inner-most secrets of hearts.”
In the monastery here in Cambridge we have several rooms set aside for spiritual direction. Many of the brothers meet with individuals regularly, perhaps once a month, over several years. We also offer directed retreats where we welcome a person to spend a few days with us and give them the opportunity to meet with a brother several times during their stay. At other times a person will ask to meet with a brother just once in order to receive guidance about a particular issue in their life with God.
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
“Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
Rules for a simpler lifestyle cannot be universal rules. We are responsible for their imagination and situation. Nor is a simpler lifestyle a panacea for what ails. But, a simpler lifestyle can be an act of faith as a matter of personal integrity and commitment to a more just distribution of the world’s scarce resources. It can be a resolution against a mindset that calls for overconsumption.
Jesus called his disciples to become simpler like a child. Withdrawal from the often neurotic pressure of our materialistic society can be a response to that call. It can be an act of solidarity with the vast majority of humanity which lacks the range for choices we enjoy.
A simpler lifestyle can be a way to share with those who have less and a way of returning to them what is usurped by unjust social and economic structures. Assuming a stance of under-consumption can be provocative invitation to others into a conversation about affluence, poverty and social justice.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I Samuel 3:10
I once had a deaf friend, an earnest Christian, who asked me whether hearing people could hear God’s voice as clearly as they could hear one another’s voices. He had often observed hearing people responding to one another’s voices, mysteriously communicating meaning to one another through the movements of their jaws and lips, and understanding one another even when they weren’t looking at each other, or when the speaker was in another room. He had learned that they possessed a mysterious ability that he had never had, and now he wondered if the same ability that enabled them to communicate with one another even when separated by a wall or a door enabled them also to communicate with God. “Does God talk to you?” he asked; “Can you hear God?”
During the last years of my life as a Harvard undergraduate I had as my confessor and spiritual director Father William Hoffman of our Society. Father Hoffman taught me two intercessory prayer practices which I have found very helpful over the years. He emphasized the importance of responding spontaneously to a perceived need for prayer. For instance, when you see or hear an ambulance go by, you pray for the crew and the patient, or, when you go by a hospital, pray for those in the hospital, and so forth. It is the same when you read a newspaper or a letter from someone sharing some need. Father Hoffman also strongly recommended keeping an intercession list, which I have always found helpful. Praying using an intercession list has the very human element of keeping us in touch with people whom we might otherwise forget. I suggest keeping a person on your list until you come to a point where you can no longer see their face in your mind’s eye, then let them go. Or if you have been asked to pray for somebody, when you forget either the circumstances or the person who asked for your prayerful intercession, well then, stop.