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Posts Tagged ‘Book of Exodus’

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Conversation:  The Experience of Transformation

Last week I had the opportunity to preach once again on the Book of Exodus.  In the liturgy we’ve been marching through that text for several days;  but despite seeing The Ten Commandments as a kid and reading from Exodus more times than I can remember, this time I picked up on some things I’d not noticed before.

For one thing, I now realize that Moses spent a lot more time on Mount Sinai than I had once assumed.  I’ve always presumed that he had hiked up Mount Sinai for a brief chat and afternoon tea with God.  At the end of it he climbed back down — carefully — with two souvenir stone tablets.  Not so.

More likely, their exchange was not nearly so brief and dramatic.  For one thing, Moses was up there for a lot longer, and his chat with God was pretty wide-ranging.  It’s too bad we don’t have a complete transcript of their conversation, but it wasn’t all pyrotechnics, despite what the movie suggested.  That’s reinforced by the behavior of the Israelites, who were camped at the foot of the mountain.  There they waited for Moses, and while they waited and waited they got bored and got on with the business of making a golden calf and getting on with their lives.

IMG_6720Had Moses been gone for only an hour or two, the story would have ended differently.  For one thing, though I’ve never made a golden calf before, I’m guessing that even the most efficient goldsmith needs more than three or four hours to make one.  On top of that, preliminary design issues and discussion with the client would have chewed up all kinds of time.  Finally, there’s the business of finance.  Who’s ever run a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to make a thing like that?  Where in the desert would you find the campaign consultants?  And whoever heard of a capital campaign that would take only gold? — and no pledges please!

The New American Bible translation of Exodus describes the exchange between God and Moses as a “conversation,” which suggests this was a fairly benign encounter.  Still, there had to have been a few moments of high drama as Moses and God hammered out the details of the Ten Commandments.  In the process they created the template for all future negotiations in the Middle East.  But in between they did what all diplomats and politicians worth their salt do.  Who knows what was on God’s mind, but I’m certain that Moses digressed to the the weather, to the food and to a growing list of complaints.  To my mind at least, “conversation” sums up their encounter rather nicely.

IMG_6743Meanwhile, Moses had no inkling of what was happening to him, but the people waiting for him noticed the change in his face right away.  Moses hadn’t looked in a mirror, and so he had no idea that his face had become radiant.  Conversation with God had transformed him, but Moses had scarcely noticed the impact on him.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that there’s no fireworks when I pray to God.  I learned long ago not to expect it, mainly because God generally doesn’t work that way.  I’ve also come to realize that prayer doesn’t upend our lives in an instant, because that’s not how prayer and conversation work.  Prayer changes us over time, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to make a difference and a lifetime to notice the difference.

For all the times when we expect prayer to yield immediate and dramatic results then, it’s good to remember Moses.  He scarcely realized what had happened to him, even if the Israelites could see the transfomation more readily than he.  Therein I find a bit of personal consolation.

I’ve been going to prayer in the monastery for most of my life now.  With gratitude I can assert that never once have I levitated or slipped into some sort of ecstatic reverie.  However, I’ve also come to appreciate the way ordinary conversation with God has impacted my life.  I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty or thirty, and to that my brothers in the monastery would utter a hearty “Amen.  Thanks be to God!”  Happily, I can say the very same for them as well.

IMG_6748Notes

+On August 2nd I presided at the Abbey Mass and preached on the Book of Exodus.

+On August 4th I hosted two dear friends for lunch and a tour of Saint John’s.  This just happened to be the day when, ten years earlier, I had visited them at their home in New Brighton, MN.  Because of the stop at their home I ended up driving over the I-35 bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  I seldom take that route, but that day, exactly one hour after I crossed, the bridge fell into the river.  I’m glad to be alive today.

Our tour of Saint John’s was a bit surreal, and not just because it was a perfect day weatherwise.  As we walked around campus the music of the Eden Prairie High School marching band serenaded our every step.  The band was here for several days for its annual camp, and their music was terrific.  We ended the tour with something from the other end of the spectrum when we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  There we stood outside two seminar rooms — one hosting a language program in Syriac and the other in Armenian.  That’s quite a contrast from the music of a marching band, but it makes for a very interesting summer day.

+On August 5th my mother and sister and brother arrived at Saint John’s for a four-day visit.  They’ve not been here for several years, and it has been wonderful to host them.

+The photos in today’s post show some of the flowers in the cloister gardens on either side of the Abbey church.  All are visible from the pews in the nave as well as from the choir stalls, and during the summer any flowers we might place inside the church are entirely superfluous.

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IMG_0002_2Exodus: An Exercise in Looking Back

During the last few days at evening prayer we’ve been reading lengthy passages from the Book of Exodus.  Of course all of us have heard this story many times by now; but even so, the repetition is neither boring nor repetitive.  For every rereading of a text, there’s always something new to glean for reflection.

So it was the other evening when Brother Simon-Hoa read from Exodus 13 and 14.  Perhaps it was the inflection of his voice or the emphasis he gave to certain phrases.  But whatever the reason, it struck me what a handful the people of Israel were.  More to the point, in the dialog it’s clear that God seemed to be painfully aware that he was dealing with a bunch of adult children.

Exodus is a prime example of how selective our memories can be.  While the text tells us that the Israelites hated every minute of life in Egypt, all that became a beautiful memory once they encountered the first sniff of difficulty in the desert.  What follows is an endless stream of sarcasm that must have irritated Moses to no end.  They complained about the food, the lack of water, and all the other inconveniences.  But the most telling complaint came when they heard that pharaoh was on the way to fetch them and return them to paradise and their old jobs as slaves.  “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  So much for any semblance of gratitude.  There must have been days when Moses wanted to shout back over the dunes to pharaoh.  “Hey, they’re over here.  You can have them all back.”

IMG_0001_2The text indicates that God too knew what he had on his hands.  These were people who would whine at the first hint of inconvenience, and so God had to factor that into the care and feeding of the Israelites.  Chapter 13 verse 17, for example, suggests that God could see trouble ahead when they’d someday meet the Philistines in the promised land.  The Philistines were scary people who meant business, and God knew from experience that at the prospect of war the Israelites would turn tail and run back to Egypt via the most direct route possible.  So God took them to the promised land via the long route — the one that took forty years.  God likely banked on the thought that after thirty-nine years the Israelites would forget the way back to Egypt and give up.  By then there would be no alternative, other than to face the music.

Exodus provides a not very flattering portrait of a people in transition.  Clearly God didn’t have much to work with, and it took forty years of purification in the desert to shape them up into something even remotely respectable.  That’s the theme that makes Exodus so interesting, and amusing.

IMG_0005_2But of course Exodus is our story as well, and most of us would not have tested out of their challenges any better than they did.  The fact of the matter is, we too like to blame others for our shortcomings;  we too prefer the easy fix;  and most of us are more than willing to give up at the slightest inconvenience.  Like the Israelites, we too can experience a lot and complain about it, but complaining can seem like a better option than actually doing something to remedy the situation.

Time helps us deal with the difficulties of life, particularly when it comes to the need to change ourselves.  That’s why God used the long route through the desert to transplant the people of Israel to the promised land.  After all, forty years in a desert will eventually bring people round to the idea that perhaps change is not as bad as they had once thought.  Experience has taught God to do the same with us.

If Lent lasted only a day or a week, we might get enthused for the short term, but we’d likely have little to show for our short-term effort.  We’d make our resolutions one day and just as easily forget them the next.  The reason for this is simple.  Authentic change takes time, and real growth can sometimes require forty days or even longer.  That’s why God doesn’t front-load all the challenges into the first few years of our lives.  Rather, challenge pops up over a lifetime, because building character can take forty years in a desert, or even longer.  In fact, authentic growth can take all the years that God puts at our disposal.  What a shame it would be to join the Israelites in looking back to Egypt for the entirety of life!

IMG_0003_2Notes

+On March 3rd I taught a class in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+On March 4th through the 6th I gave a Lenten retreat to guests in the Abbey guesthouse.  Twenty were in attendance, and I concentrated my conferences on the liturgy of Holy Week.  On Saturday evening we watched Babette’s Feast, which remains one of my all-time favorite movies.  It takes place in Denmark in the second half of the 19th century, and it has a strong Eucharistic theme.  It is the perfect movie to prepare for Holy Thursday.

+On several occasions I have written about the work of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s Abbey.  Corps members are recent graduates of Saint John’s University who do a year of volunteer work at various Benedictine abbeys around the world.  Among those abbeys is Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  Last week, in a reversal of fortune, a Benedictine volunteer from Montserrat has come to spend six months at Saint John’s.  Fransesc is a graduate of the Montserrat choir school and has been a university student in Barcelona.  He is a welcome addition to the abbey schola, in addition to all of the other activities in which he will be engaged.

IMG_0013_2+The photos in today’s post are of frescos and the interior of Saint Alban’s Abbey, which is located north of London.  At the time of the suppression of the monasteries in England the medieval frescos were plastered over, only to come to light centuries later.

+A few readers report that on occasion they have not received my blog come Monday morning.  I’m happy to say that I’ve not missed a blog post since the first week, and so there must be technical difficulties with WordPress every now and again.  In case you don’t receive a post, you can visit the web site of my blog.  In fact, for just such an occasion it is nice to bookmark the web address.

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