1 John 1: 1 – 4
Luke 24: 36 – 53
There are a few of us in the community who will remember, and there may be others of you who will have heard the story, probably countless times, of how our brother Tom, when he was the Superior, used to pray at the Mid-Day Office for the gift of martyrdom to be given to our community. Some of us were quite ready to grant him his prayer, and make him the first official martyr of the Society. (As an aside, I say official martyr, because while the African martyr Bernard Mizeki was not a member of our community, he was certainly a product of our Society, as he was: introduced to the Christian faith; prepared for baptism; trained as a catechist and sent out on mission where he was later martyred, by members of our community in South Africa. Because of that, I like to think of him as our martyr.)
We say in our Rule of Life in the chapter on Life Profession that the grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.
Traveling in the desert is dangerous. One may faint from heat or be blinded by light. Caves offer safe shadows. One cannot survive alone. In the desert culture of Abraham and today, when meeting someone you share provisions. Generosity may save a stranger’s life. In our first lesson, God visited Abraham and Sarah in the person of three strangers. Abraham hurried from the tent, invited them to stop and rest in the shade of the tree and then hurried off to prepare a meal and serve them. Hospitality, tonight’s radical practice, is essential in a desert and everywhere. We all need welcome and sharing.
We assume self-sufficiency though most of us experience much need and forget our past. Remember the children of Abraham spent 400 years as resident alien slaves in Egypt. After being rescued and later receiving land, God instructed: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”[i] Being a stranger shapes behavior. We know what it feels like. God said: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”[ii] Later our ancestors were aliens in exile under Babylonian rule. We know what it is like to be traveling and to be outsiders. Having been strangers, we welcome strangers.
Romans 12:1-2, 9-21
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There is within us all a very sacred place, a gift of stillness, light, and love central to our being. We could call it our heart or soul or the indwelling of Christ. It’s at once a point of utter nothingness, while also giving birth to all things in heaven and on earth. It’s a place capable of holding with infinite gentleness both incredible beauty and terrible pain. Against all reason, it’s the place God chooses to call home, and so it’s our home, too. It’s the place where Christ is born, and from where we share Christ’s love and compassion in the world. It’s God’s eternal Kingdom within us, our common inheritance as children of Light.
Very often, though, it seems so difficult to even visit this place, let alone claim our inheritance. We live our lives as if in a dream, where we’re separate from God and from all there is, and often we don’t even realize we’re dreaming. But then something happens, we start feeling restless, a part us senses our perpetual slumber, and we desire something more: to awaken to God’s Loving Presence, and dwell in that sacred place. And our Beloved God is encouraging us all the time, tirelessly offering this generous gift. Unfortunately, we tend to slumber deeply, but there is a way of being more receptive to this gift, and it’s truly very, very simple.
“All good things come to those who wait!” My mother used to say that to my brothers and sister and me when we were growing up – and I hated it! “No, can’t I have it NOW?” – we’d plead. “Please, can you buy me a Chelsea football shirt?” “No, you’ll have to wait till the end of the month.” “O no, why can’t I have it now?”
In our Western society, we hate having to wait. At the supermarket, deciding which lane will be the shortest. You make a choice, and it’s the wrong one. All the other lanes are moving much faster. Shall I swap? If only I’d chosen the other lane: now I’ve got to wait. Or you are driving, stopped at a red light, that’s been red for ages – and then it goes to green, and the car in front doesn’t seem to have noticed – O come on! Or at the airport: you look at the board for your flight, and see the dreaded word ‘DELAYED.” O no, I’ve got to wait another hour.
Read by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I Thessalonians 5:18
I have a memory of my 5th-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I don’t recall any of the specifics of that assignment, but I do recall having a terrible case of “writer’s block.” I sat for the longest time just staring at that piece of paper. I couldn’t think of a thing for which I was thankful.
Recalling it now, it seems shocking to me that a 5th-grade boy growing up in suburban America, with plenty of food and warm clothes and a comfortable home and a loving family, couldn’t think of anything for which he was thankful. I was surrounded by gifts, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts, and so I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for them. I suppose I naively assumed that everyone had food and clothing, a loving family and a comfortable home. I was unaware of how privileged I was to enjoy these things on a daily basis, and simply took them for granted.
1 John 4:7-21;
Like the founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, I grew up in an Evangelical tradition of the church. The word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek euangelion, which means “bearer of good news,” and it is the charism of the evangelical tradition to spread by word the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. And so from a young age I was taught vivid Bible stories in Sunday School,that were often accompanied by handouts that I could take home and color with pictures of Jesus telling stories to children seated all around him. I also learned songs that I would sing ad naseum in the car on the way home such as ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’As a child I knew Jesus to be my buddy and as long as I had these Bible stories, songs, and coloring sheets, Jesus was with me wherever I went.
As I grew older, my dad encouraged me to leave the coloring activity sheets behind and begin to listen to what our pastor was preaching in church, something that I wasn’t thrilled about because I didn’t understand the message he was articulating. I didn’t yet have the vocabulary and experience to grasp concepts such as ‘sin,’‘atonement,’ and ‘repentance.’ It would take a while for me to gain an understanding of this adult expression of God, one that seemed so complex and at times frightening. What did resonate with me was when the pastor gave what was called an “altar call.” After the sermon and before the final hymn, he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire which was the next step in the journey of faith. I think I was eleven when I made my way to the front to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. I always looked forward to that moment in the service to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was. I imagine it is with a youthful twinkle in his eye that Fr. Benson once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know Him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with Him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”[i]
Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.”
My parents would certainly never have used the word enclosure, nor thought that the practice they were inculcating in their children was a monastic practice, but growing up I lived in a house that lived, to a certain extent, by a limited rule of enclosure.
One of the ways we practiced this was that our bedrooms were off limit to our friends. Bedrooms were not regarded as play areas, and while we could play there quietly on our own, we could not invite our friends into them. We entertained our friends in the living room or the basement, but not in our bedrooms. I was always a little uncomfortable when visiting a friend’s house to be invited into their bedrooms. I had the feeling that I shouldn’t be there.