Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Christmas Sermon

 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
    on them light has shined.
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.
-       Isaiah 9:2; 6-7.

In his great vision, the prophet Isaiah goes on to say that this child will establish justice for the poor, restore nature to a harmonious equilibrium, and bring an end to violence.  This promised child, whose birth we celebrate tonight, is destined to lead us back to paradise, bringing creation to its fulfillment. 

That is truly good news to people living in a land of deep darkness.  We gather tonight, as we do every Christmas, to be bathed in the light and to claim the promised child as the source of our own hope in dark times.  From where else could our hope possibly come?

Writing in the depths of the darkness of the Nazi regime in 1942, the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, affirmed,

Ecce homo – behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.  God loves human beings.  God loves the world.  Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.  What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.  God establishes the most intimate unity with this.  God becomes human, a real human being . . . Jesus Christ is not the transfiguration of noble humanity but the Yes of God to real human beings, not the dispassionate Yes of a judge but the merciful Yes of a compassionate sufferer.  In this Yes all the life and all the hope of the world are comprised.[1]

It is in the birth of this promised child, God made flesh in Jesus, that we find our hope.  But what exactly is illuminated by the light of Christ?  What is the content of our hope?  By becoming human for our sake, God in Christ Jesus opens up the possibility that we, too, can become human. 

“The great revelation of Christmas is that God is human,” writes Walter Wink,

It is the great error of humanity to believe that we are human.  We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human.  We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not arrived at true humanness.  Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness – which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.[2]

Jesus is not some kind of alien invading our world by cleverly disguising himself in a human body.  He is fully human, showing us thereby that he is fully God also, because only God is fully human.   What Jesus opens up for us, however, is the Way to become human ourselves, and so realize our divinity.  God became human so that we can become divine: precisely by becoming human ourselves. 

Jesus is the promised child who shows us what it means to be human so that we can participate in God’s project of renewing the world, of bringing the whole creation to its fulfillment, of returning to paradise.  What does being human look like in the face of Jesus Christ?   It looks like unrestricted love:  a power that heals the body, welcomes the outcast, and reconciles the enemy. 

In a land of deep darkness in which health is a privilege, prejudice is celebrated, and the vulnerable are treated as scapegoats, we need to see the light:  we need to recover our desire and our willingness to become human.  We need to claim the promised child as our hope, discovering that hope within ourselves as mirrored in the face of Jesus Christ.  We can become human.  That is our hope, that is the hope of the world. 

We can no longer allow the fear of death to define us and coerce us into being anything less than human.  This, too, is what Jesus shows us in his dying and being raised into eternal life: only by refusing to live in the shadow if death can love become unrestricted.[3] In the face of great evil, the temptation to become less than human, to mirror the evil we hate, is also great.  This we must resist, even unto death; this we can resist, because love has conquered death.

Daryl Davis is, for me, an icon of the power of unrestricted love.  Davis is a remarkably gifted musician.  He also is a connoisseur of hate groups, which might seem odd since Davis is an African-American.  However, he is driven by his profoundly troubling experience of racism to find the answer to the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”  This need to understand has led to some unusual relationships and a remarkable ministry of reconciliation.

Through a series of encounters in Maryland honky-tonks where Davis played with a country band, he came to befriend a former member of the KKK.  This led to an interview with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the Maryland KKK, as part of Davis’ research for his book on racism and reconciliation.  Davis came away from this very tense initial meeting surprised to realize he actually kind of liked Kelly, even though they could not have disagreed more on the matter ofrace.  Kelly left Davis with his card, and invited him to keep in touch.

Whenever Davis performed in the county where Kelly lived, he’d call and invite him to come to the show.  Kelly would come, and would bring other friends of his from the KKK.  Davis and Kelly developed a friendship, and Davis even attended some KKK rallies as Kelly’s guest – and act which required tremendous courage – of different sorts – on both their parts. 

Roger Kelley became an Imperial Wizard of the KKK, but his friendship with Daryl Davis began to nag at his conscience.  Eventually, Kelly, and a dozen other key leaders of the Maryland KKK, renounced their membership, effectively eviscerating the KKK in that state.  Through the power of unrestricted love, they discovered their capacity to become human mirrored in the face of Daryl Davis. 

“The lesson learned is: ignorance breeds fear,” says Davis. “If you don’t keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. If you don’t keep hatred in check it will breed destruction.”[4]

Reflecting on his relationships with white supremacists like Roger Kelly, Davis argues,

You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together
began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.[5]

In a land of deep darkness Daryl Davis is shining the light of unrestricted love, affirming the possibility of civil discourse and transfiguring relationships across the deepest divides.  We can engage the enemy without becoming the evil we deplore.  This is Jesus’ third way between conformity and violence.  It is the way of becoming human.

We can become human.  We can return to paradise, if we are willing to follow the child, born this day, born in us, who is leading us there.  That is our hope, that is the hope of the world.  Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 84 – 85.
[2] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man, p. 26.
[3] James Alison, “Looking Backwards for Christmas” at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/pdf/eng24.pdf.
[4] Bob Massey, "Dancing with the Devil," The Washington Post (July 5, 1998).
[5] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Audacity of Talking About Race with the Ku Klux Klan,” The Atlantic (March 27, 2015). 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Subverting the Apocalyptic Imagination: Three Imperatives for Living in History

Our Scripture readings today match the mood of much of the country: apocalyptic!  While the election results are not exactly the end of the world, they do mark the end of an era.  We’ve never seen a nationalist populism of this kind dominate a once mainstream political party and achieve electoral college success.  This election season was marked by an unprecedented level of vulgarity, vitriol, deceit and pure hatred.  There is nearly universal uncertainty about the future and more than a little fear. 

Apocalyptic reflects this moment, not simply because of its association with convulsive transitions, but also because of the worldview with which it is associated.  At the heart of the apocalyptic imagination is a perception of reality marked by a series of binary oppositions:  a cosmic dualism between heaven and earth, a temporal dualism between this age and the age to come, which will begin with the destruction of this age, and a social dualism between good people and evil people.[i]  Apocalyptic is about polarization and its tension, a tension that can be overcome only by the utter annihilation of one of the poles:  heaven will displace earth when this evil age and its people are destroyed.

This is clearly expressed in the text from the prophet Malachi this morning:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts . . .[ii]

Please note that this kind of thinking is not limited to images of that mean “Old Testament” god.  We find it also in the New Testament’s second letter to the Thessalonians:

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.[iii]

The apocalyptic imagination is one thread within the biblical traditions, but it is not the only or ultimate perspective.  Jesus offers a very different take on apocalyptic. While it is true that Jesus takes over the language of apocalyptic, he turns it to a very different purpose, subverting its meaning from within.   “Apocalyptic” literally means “revelation” or “unveiling.”  In his teaching and practice, Jesus collapses the polarities of the apocalyptic imagination to reveal what is really going on. 

This is most evident in Jesus’ practice of inclusive table fellowship, his healing of outcasts, and his parabolic reversals of insiders and outsiders.  The polarity between good and evil people is undone by the forgiving love of a God who makes the rain to fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  There is judgment and condemnation of evil, but in the service of a larger wholeness.

Similarly, the polarity between heaven and earth is undone by the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.  Heaven and earth are correlated dimensions of reality, overlapping if you will.  The kingdom of heaven is “at hand,” it is within and among you.  It is not the destruction of earth and flight to heaven for which we hope, but rather a new heaven and earth emerging from the transfiguration of present reality. 

Finally, the polarity between the present age and the age to come is elided by a sense of continuity between past, present, and future held in an eternal now.  The emphasis is less on a rupture between the present age and the age to come, than it is on the age to come invading the present age, so to speak, and subverting it from within: like leaven in the dough.  Justice rises to fill the whole, but only after it does can we eat the bread of reconciliation.  There is no reconciliation without justice.  There is no cheap grace in Jesus’ teaching or practice – it comes at the cost of any claim to privilege or self-sufficiency -  but that grace is available here and now as well as then and there.[iv] 

So when Jesus speaks of wars and uprisings and natural disasters, he is not evoking a cataclysmic end time, but rather the difficult reality of history and its very gradual, sometimes barely perceptible, leavening by God’s gracious work in and through us.  He is clear that the “end” will not follow immediately.  In fact, he warns us against those who claim the end is near.  He goes on to note that nation will be raised upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom (not nation against nation):  that is to say, nations will rise and fall, but that isn’t the end of the world.[v]  Empires, political parties, leaders come and go – don’t freak out about it.  Don’t be fascinated by those who manipulate the fear and uncertainty inherent in such moments of upheaval. 

Notice something else that is unusual about Jesus’ evocation of apocalyptic imagery:  the violence, which is real, is purely a human phenomenon.  It has nothing to do with divine vengeance.  Jesus assumes – even warns – his disciples that, rather than being triumphant beneficiaries of such violence, they will be its victims.  They will arrest you and persecute you.  You will be imprisoned and brought before kings and governors because of your loyalty to the way of Jesus.  You will be hated, betrayed by members of your own family. 

It is here that the apocalyptic imagination is turned on its head.  Jesus adopts the perspective of victims, from the underside of history.  What is unveiled or revealed is the innocence of history’s victims and the mendacity of our violent culture constructed of mutually exclusive binary opposites.  God is not the source of this violence, but rather the gracious energy of love that witnesses for justice no matter what the cost, for the sake of a reconciliation that lies ahead of us.  The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. 

When Jesus counsels us to love our enemies and to pray for them, he also instructs us to find creative, nonviolent ways to shift the balance of power in society in ways that protect the vulnerable.[vi]  Jesus is not naïve.  He knows there are enemies of the Gospel.   He knows history is a long slog.  But he also reveals a resource against the violent rulers of this and every age:  the power of God that flows through those willing to receive it and bear witness to it. 

This election is not the end of the world.  It is one more moment in the long evolution of human consciousness into the fullness of Christ consciousness.  In becoming human in Christ Jesus, God revealed the true meaning of history: the unfathomable love of God for all that She has created and redeemed.  Nothing can ultimately stand against the power of this love.  In bearing witness to this truth, Jesus outlines three imperatives for living in history.[vii]

“Watch, that you may not be lead astray.”  This is the contemplative imperative:  cultivate the capacity to pay attention.  Listen to the still small voice within.  Listen to the wisdom of the body and of the earth.  Embrace the discerning wisdom that comes from the practice of listening, allowing us to touch into the reality of God’s presence so as to shape our perception of reality.  Silent prayer is the taproot of wisdom to read the signs of the times.  Plenty of fools throughout history have claimed “I am he, only I can save you.”  Don’t believe it for a minute.

“Put it into your hearts not to prepare a defense ahead of time.”  This is the trust imperative. We will be called before the court of history to defend its victims.  Our first responsibility is to protect the vulnerable.  This inevitably gets us into trouble with those in power who exploit the vulnerable.  The question is not if we will need to testify, but how we will do it.  Jesus says, “Don’t worry about it.”  Don’t prepare ahead of time, anxious about getting it right.  It isn’t about being persuasive, or manipulating others, or even “winning” in the conventional sense.  It is about solidarity and truth-telling.

Finally, “In your patience, possess your souls.”  This is a more accurate rendering of the somewhat misleading translation, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[viii] It isn’t a quid pro quo:  if you endure, you will be saved.  It is an instruction about how to conduct ourselves as witnesses for God in history:  with dignity, not frenzy; guarding your soul’s integrity, not selling it to the highest bidder.  It can be tempting, in the real struggle for justice in history, to sell our soul to the devil, to become the evil we resist.  Don’t lose your soul, not even to gain the world.  The world already belongs to God.  You don’t need to mirror evil.  This is the integrity imperative.

Pay attention.  Trust God.  Guard your soul.

In the days ahead, we must resist the cynical manipulation of the masses by the demagogue de jour.  That much is obvious.  We must also resist the temptation to retreat to tend our little garden, refusing the risks of engagement with public life.  We will be called to bear witness, says Jesus.  If not now, then when? 

There is also another temptation we must resist – the call to a premature “unity” that seeks a rush to reconciliation without justice in the name of a sincere, but misguided idea of love of our enemies.  Writing in Germany in the early 1940’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of the Confessing Church who cooperated with the German resistance to the Nazi regime, describes such misguided love in this way:

“It rests on evaluating human beings according to their dormant values – the health, reasonableness, and goodness deep beneath the surface . . . With forced tolerance, evil is reinterpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused.  For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything.  One loves a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality, and one ends up despising the real human being whom God has loved and whose being God has taken on.”[ix]

We are entering into a dark period of our history.  The shadow side of the American psyche is in the ascendant, unleashing the racism and misogyny, the fear of the other, that always has been a part of our national life.  Those who have long been its victims are not surprised by the outcome of this election.  I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could paint a rosier picture, but only an honest appraisal of the situation can offer us a way forward.  Pay attention.  Trust God.  Guard your soul.  Let our “No” be loud and clear.  Anything less betrays contempt for the very people and earth that we claim to love in the name of Jesus.    

Our victory comes from God, and the Spirit is the source of the wisdom and power we need to respond to the vicissitudes of history.  We must follow Jesus in the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination.  This is our opportunity to testify.

[i] James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 124.
[ii] Malachi 4:1.
[iii] II Thessalonians 1:6-7.
[iv] Alison, p. 125-130.
[vi] Luke 6:27-36.
[vii] Luke 21: 7-19.
[viii] Davis, op cit. 
[ix] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), p. 87.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Work of Silence

Review of Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process 

Maggie Ross is an Anglican solitary in the tradition of St. Julian of Norwich.  Her most recent book, Silence: A User’s Guide, is the first installment of her two-volume magnum opus.  It is the fruit of a lifetime of contemplative prayer and scholarly reflection, and serves as a fine example of the material effects of what she refers to in this book as “the work of silence.”

Ross defines the work of silence as the process of “restoring communion with, and re-centering in, the deep mind within us.” (Ross, p. 23) 

The purpose of the work of silence is to re-establish the flow between self-consciousness, which discriminates, dominates, and distorts our lives, and the clarity and wisdom of the deep mind, which is not directly accessible, but whose activities we can influence. (p. 23)

She argues that this distinction between “self-consciousness” and “deep mind” is correlated with the bicameral brain.  Self-consciousness is correlated with left-brain functioning, which is finite, linear, and self-reflexive.  Deep mind is correlated with right-brain functioning, which is infinite, holographic, and inclusive.  Human beings are naturally equipped with these dual epistemological capacities, and both are necessary for human flourishing.  Ross is careful not to conflate mind with brain, but wants to emphasize that how we use our mind shapes the structure and function of the brain.  We’ve become an almost exclusively, and dangerously, “left brain” culture. (p. 31) 

The problem arises when, as in modern Western culture (including mainstream Christian traditions), human self-consciousness is sundered from the transfiguring power of the deep mind.  Human perception is reduced to a closed system that is solipsistic and merely virtual, confusing representations (however helpful and necessary) for direct encounter with reality, reinforcing prejudices and projections. 

This superficial conceptual mind is not “bad,” but when the flow of exchange with the deep mind is cut off it is a mess.  In its optimal relationship with deep mind, self-consciousness plays a positive role.  It offers the human person awareness of his or her imagination.  Self-consciousness provides essential services by sorting and classifying by means of linear reason the perceptions given to it by deep mind.  It receives, orders, and interprets images and relationships, and the beauties and wonders of the sensory and material worlds.  But the world self-consciousness creates is paradoxical:  by organizing what it receives, it reduces deep mind’s living direct perceptions to lifeless summaries . . . To make its contribution useful instead of destructive, its perspective must be continually yielded back to and trans-figured in the silence of the deep mind; that is to say, it must continually submit its interpretations to the silence so that its habitual patterns, the way it “figures things out,” can be modified more accurately to reflect the deep mind’s direct perception of reality. (pp. 42-43).

The restoration of connection between these two dimensions of mind occurs “primarily by means of intention, paradox and resonance.” (p. 47).  Ross describes the relinquishment of self-consciousness into deep mind in terms of the “paradox of intention.”  This refers to our willingness to re-engage the connection through the work of silence.  By entering into silent contemplation, the contents of consciousness are emptied as the liminal space between self-consciousness and deep mind is approached (including our intention to do so, hence the paradox). 

There are a variety of methods to support this intention, generally focused on cultivating one-pointed attention.  However, these only serve to bring one to the point of liminality, to the possibility of openness to deep mind.  It involves a shift of concentration from the contents of consciousness to a wide-open awareness.

Liminality is as far as self-consciousness can go.  It is the threshold where effects of unseen communication with, and input from, the deep mind become manifest.  The person must wait in liminality, in unknowing, for gratuity, for whatever irrupts – often unawares – from the deep mind.  This is contemplation properly speaking. (p. 47)

Movement across the threshold of liminality into deep mind is what the Christian tradition refers to as excessus mentis: the cessation of self-consciousness in pure awareness beyond the subject-object duality of discursive reason.   It is the encounter with Reality, with God, that trans-figures our perception, the effects of which can be discerned after the fact.  Such an encounter cannot be forced; it is pure gift.  We can simply become willing to surrender self-consciousness at the borderland of deep mind. 

The paradox of intention that opens the door to divine encounter is similarly, albeit more poetically, described by Tilden Edwards.

Such direct knowing involves, first of all, a deep desire to participate in the flow of God’s grace in the living moment.  Put another way, I bring a desire to identify the core of my being with the radiant Love who, according to scripture, shapes each of us into a unique image of itself.  I also bring a desire to live out of that Love in my daily life.  Finally, I bring a trust, or at least a hope, that by suspending attachment to the conditioned concepts and images of my conceptual mind I will be left more vulnerable to the grace at hand that so exceeds what my thinking mind can hold.  I will be more available to the movements of the Holy Spirit that animate what is most vital in the living moment.  The awareness of deep Reality from my deep soul-self will be awakened. (Edwards, p. 13)

Ross describes this surrender of self-consciousness as “free falling into God’s love.”  In Christian terms, it is the process of what she names “en-Christening” or, to use a biblical turn of phrase, “putting on the mind of Christ.” Ross, however, would add two cautions to Edwards’ description.  The first would be to emphasize that deep mind is also “thinking mind.”  It is not irrational.  It simply operates on a different, more expansive epistemological model than the limited, self-conscious mind.   

The second would be to emphasize that the elision of self-consciousness in deep mind, which makes possible the encounter with God, is not an “experience.”  To speak of an “experience of God” requires self-conscious awareness of the subject of the experience, and God can never be spoken of as an object among other objects.  To speak of such an “experience” indicates that one is several degrees of interpretation removed from the direct encounter itself. 

Reconnection with deep mind requires a self-forgetfulness that renounces all claims to experience.  It can only be talked about retrospectively with reference to its affects. (Ross, pp. 78-80) St. John Cassian observed similarly that “Prayer is not perfect when the monk is conscious of himself and of the fact that he is actually praying.” (Conferences, 9:31)

Ross argues that access to the deep mind is necessary in order to think properly at all.  The danger of self-consciousness locked in upon itself is manifest in such absurdities as our belief that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet; that we can destroy our natural environment indefinitely without undermining the bases for human life; that human beings are isolated, autonomous, discreet, and fixed individual selves.  Deep mind opens us to sense of the whole, intuitive insight, and compassionate responsivity that are desperately needed in our world.

Ross pulls no punches when it comes to her understanding of the importance of silence to human flourishing.  Every seminarian learns the well-known first part of a quote from Irenaeus of Lyon: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive” – Ross reminds us of the less well-known second part of the quote: “and to be alive consists in beholding God.”  The loss of silence, which is the necessary condition for this beholding, is to risk the loss of life itself. 

The human race is sleepwalking into extinction.  If we are not to destroy our beautiful planet and our selves with it, then we must learn to live more simply, more carefully, more joyfully.  If religion is to be a viable catalyst for this way of living, then it must recover the work of silence. (p. 9)

Silence is a mature and challenging corrective to much of what passes for writing about “spirituality.”  Ross’ chapter on “Language About Silence” and her chapters on “Suppressing Silence” greatly help to clarify our conceptual understanding of the work of silence and how it has been marginalized in Western culture.  Her comment that “Silence is our natural habitat, and the work of silence is, as it were, a process of returning to the wild” (p. 13) is a beautiful reminder that contemplative silence is not a flight from the world, but rather a means of engaging with it more deeply. 

This is a perspective that Ross returns to repeatedly, insisting that “The work of silence is not a separate compartment of life called “spirituality”: it is living the ordinary through trans-figured perception.” (p. 33) Indeed, the work of silence itself does not occur in a vacuum, but rather sustains and is sustained by an entire way of life.

In terms of the relationship between self-consciousness and the work of silence with the deep mind, the trajectory looks something like this: a person who has taken the time to observe his or her own mind rediscovers the way to re-center the person, the way that communication between the self-conscious mind and deep mind can be re-established, often expressed through paradoxes (they are paradoxes only to the self-conscious mind) that move the mind through liminality into reciprocity with deep mind.  This way is not confined to mere technique (such as meditation) but requires a context, a value system (whether or not it is recognized or denied), and a re-integration into the natural world.  These are some of the most important elements essential to becoming a mature human being. (p. 143)

Contrary to popular misinterpretations, this vision of maturity humanity was held by the early fathers and mothers of desert monasticism and later Benedictine monasticism, who, rather than fleeing into the hell of the isolated self, lived the truth that “my life is with my neighbor.”  The work of silence is not a flight from the world for the sake of saving one’s self, but rather the willingness to empty one’s self for the sake of the salvation of the world.  It is a way of wisdom that goes back to Jesus, who engaged the work of silence himself and taught the way of metanoia, conversion or expansion of mind, perfectly embodying the emptying of self-consciousness or kenosis that metanoia entails.  

In the second volume of Silence, Ross will include a re-reading of Hebrew and Christian scriptures from the perspective of the work of silence.  It should be anticipated eagerly, if the first volume is any indication of its importance and value. 

Works Cited

Cassian, John, Conferences (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 1985).

Edwards, Tilden, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living
 (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 2010).

Ross, Maggie, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process (London: Darton, Longman, and
            Todd, 2014).

Monday, September 5, 2016


St. Robert of Molesme, Abbey of Cîteaux
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend mass at the Abbey of Cîteaux, the “mother house” of the Cistercian Order.  Cistercians are a branch of the Benedictine family, founded in 1098 by St. Robert of Molesme.  The Cistercians were a reform movement that sought to return to a stricter observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, in reaction to the wealth and perceived laxity of Benedictine monasteries founded by the Abbey of Cluny. 

The Cistercian Order grew under the leadership of St. Robert and his two successor Abbots, St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding.  It was Abbot Stephen who welcomed Bernard of Fontaine to Cîteaux in 1113.  He would become known as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great theologian and preacher, who spread the Cistercian reform throughout Europe.  At the height of its influence, some 500 Cistercian monasteries and 900 convents flourished.

The Reformation and subsequent Wars of Religion took a toll on Cîteaux and the Order, as did inevitable institutional decline.  During the 17th Century, the Cistercian Order underwent another revival calling for stricter observance of the Rule.  Associated with the reforms initiated in la Trappe by the abbot de Rancé, those who kept the strict observance became known as “Trappists.”

The Enlightenment and French Revolution were hard on religious orders in Europe.  In 1789, Cîteaux was confiscated by the State and sold as stone quarry (as was the great Abbey of Cluny).  Monastic communities were disbanded, and the Trappists sought refuge in Switzerland and as far away as Russia.  One hundred years later, Trappist monks purchased and resettled the Abbey of Cîteaux. 

Abbey Church
The Abbey church today is a very plain, modern concrete structure.  Although the setting was simple, the liturgy was celebrated with great reverence and beauty.  Most of the buildings that remain are from the 17th and 18th Century.  Currently, 35 monks are resident in Cîteaux, though recently 4 of them left to create a new foundation in Norway. 

I’ve long admired the Trappists because of the writings of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  Visiting Cîteaux reminded me of the great commitment monastic life requires.  The daily schedule alone is daunting, including the daily office ( seven services with psalms, scripture readings, and prayers):
Abbey Church

3:45 a.m.         Rise
4:00 a.m.         Vigils
7:00 a.m.         Lauds & mass
9:30 a.m.         Terce
12:30 p.m.       Sext
2:30 p.m.         None
6:00 p.m.         Vespers
8:00 p.m.         Compline
8:30 p.m.         Bedtime
In between, the brothers have time for work (earning their living from a dairy operation), lectio divina (contemplative reading of sacred texts), a period of study/rest in the afternoon, and two common meals.  Imagine following this same schedule every day, in the same place, with largely the same group of people, until the day you die.  It is a profound witness to placing intimacy with God as the highest priority in one’s life.

While few are called to monastic life, we can all learn from the monks’ commitment to stability in community, simplicity, and balance.  Seven times each day, monks drop whatever they may be doing and turn to prayer, paying attention to God’s presence in their life with praise and thanksgiving.  What a gift it would be if each of us, if only for a moment, paused with such frequency throughout our day and turned our attention to God with gratitude. 
Abbey grounds

Tilden Edwards, a priest and teacher at the Shalem Institute, often reminds us that no matter where we are or what time it is, we can always “lean back into the Presence.”  

I’m grateful for the monks of Cîteaux, and all the people in my life, who witness to the importance of “learning to lean.” 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Peace and Praise

Taizé Community
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  - 2 Corinthians 5:17-20
Peace and praise, reconciliation and delight: these are the purposes of God.
-       Archbishop Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

One of the great gifts of my time in Burgundy has been the opportunity to worship with a contemporary icon of peace and praise: The Taizé Community.  The Taizé Community is perhaps best known today for its composition of beautiful chants based on simple scripture sentences (praise).  What is less well known, but perhaps more important, is its ministry as a pilgrimage site drawing young adults from all over Europe and the world (peace). 

The Taizé Community is an ecumenical brotherhood consisting of about 100 Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic men who live together under a rule of life shaped by the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The brotherhood was founded in the wake of the trauma of World War II by Brother Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche.  Brother Roger envisioned a Christian community that transcended the church’s divisions and made God’s mission of reconciliation through Jesus Christ the center of its common life. 

pilgrims at Taizé
It is a remarkable vision.  What is even more remarkable is that since the 1950s hundreds of thousands of young people, from all over Europe and the world, have come as pilgrims to Taizé to spend a week working, praying, and studying scripture with the brothers.  During the summer months, as many as 6,000 pilgrims come to Taizé each week! 

What brings them to this place: a tiny, ordinary village in the French countryside? 

I think it has to do with the authenticity of the brothers’ Christian practice.  Brother Roger’s choice to settle in Taizé is instructive in itself. He chose to found a religious community there, precisely because it was a poor and humble place, in need of a witness to God’s love.  Brother Roger and the first brothers were intentional about living in solidarity with the poor, and committed to do so in perpetuity.

Interestingly, Brother Roger’s mother had family roots in the Burgundy region, so the choice of Taizé was also a kind of homecoming for him.  What is important to note is that, from the beginning, the community’s witness to prayer and praise was in the context of stability (commitment to remain in a particular place) and the practice of sacrificial love.

Initially, this self-giving took the form of aiding Jews and French resistance forces seeking to escape German occupied France, and proving food and shelter for victims of the war.  Later, it included establishing homes for war orphans and aiding German POW’s in nearby camps.  The brothers were willing to take risks for the sake of love:  love of the poor, of refugees, and even of enemies.  

The brothers support themselves through farming and pottery making, gathering together three times daily for prayer.  They did not set out to be a major pilgrimage destination for young adults.  Their simplicity, humility, commitment to the poor, and ecumenical spirit simply drew people to them.  The brothers embraced God’s mission of reconciliation and people responded.  Young people can sniff out inauthenticity a mile way.  At Taizé, they sense an authentic commitment to following the way of Jesus. 

What has most moved me about the Taizé brothers is their continual willingness to give themselves away for the sake of God’s mission.  The stability of their common life has provided a rich soil for growth that has extended the reach of their ministry all over the world.  Their phenomenal hospitality to strangers bears witness to their sacrificial love. 

At first, the brothers worshiped in the abandoned Romanesque church in Taizé.  This ancient, venerable, and beautiful space was soon too small to hold the many pilgrims joining them for prayer.  So, in 1962, the brothers dedicated a new, larger building:  the Church of Reconciliation.  They recognized that the church is not a building, but rather the people of God, and that buildings mean little if they fail to serve God’s mission.  

The Church of Reconciliation, Taizé

By 1971, the new church building was no longer able to contain the number of pilgrims either.  So, the brothers took sledgehammers in hand and knocked down the entire west wall, even though it contained a beautiful stained glass window, and erected an old red and white circus tent to expand the space!

When the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989, a flood of Eastern Europeans made their way to Taizé, further expanding the number of pilgrims.  The brothers made permanent additions to the church building, with movable walls to accommodate larger or smaller groups, and added onion-shaped domes to the roof to make pilgrims from Eastern Orthodox traditions feel more at home. 

In less than thirty years, the brothers radically transformed their worship space three times for the sake of God’s mission.   At Taizé, Christianity is about transforming lives, not preserving buildings.  The brothers make sacrifices to witness to God’s peace through shared praise of God.  They understand the difference between stability and rigidity. They let nothing get in the way of sharing God’s love. 

Many congregations have been in place much longer than the Taizé Community, but stability is not enough.  It is the combination of stability and sacrificial love, the willingness to give one’s self away in love for neighbor and stranger, that makes for vital Christian witness.  It is this self-giving that makes reconciliation possible and the praise of God credible.  It is what makes for authentic ambassadors of the purposes of God.