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Posts Tagged ‘Ten Commandments’

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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_4810Don’t Even Think About It

Perhaps a few too many times I’ve asked members of an audience whether they’ve killed anyone lately.  I admit that it’s an out-from-left-field question, but I enjoy the surprise I see on people’s faces because they rarely see that coming.  But I’m also careful about how I phrase the question, and I never ask for a show of hands.  You just never know when a few will get caught up in the moment, raise their hands enthusiastically, and then realize they’ve just incriminated themselves in front of a group of strangers.

These days I merely presume that no one has committed murder that day.  “And is that because of your deep devotion to the fifth commandment, or because of sloth?  Were you just too lazy to kill anyone this morning?  Or did you decide that the disruption to your schedule would be too much?”

Most people get the point.  It’s certainly one thing to kill someone, and it’s quite another to wish you had but didn’t.  The first might send you to hell, but the second will scarcely make you a saint, no matter the reason for your restraint.  The fact is, the thought does count, and that is the point that Jesus makes in his discourse on the commandments, at least in my opinion.

img_4811In Matthew 5 Jesus asserted that he had come to abolish neither the law nor the prophets.  However, a quick reading of his sermon in that chapter leaves the impression that he actually took the severity of the law and made it one degree tougher.  In one sense he did just that, but there he was merely being consistent in his teaching.

On more than one occasion Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, pointing out the obvious:  their exterior behavior masked an interior corruption.  They may project the image of fervent believers, but in their heart of hearts they are something different altogether.  Alive on the outside and dead on the inside, they have no right to lord it over others who are merely more obvious in their sinning.

So what is Jesus up to when he takes adultery as a for-instance and pushes it to the next level?  Who hasn’t lusted after someone else?  Are people who only think about adultery just as guilty as those who act out on their desires?  Are all equally guilty?  Or as Peter once asked, “Can no one be saved?”

There’s the rub, and I suspect that on more than one occasion Jesus turned to Peter with a delighted “Exactly!”  Jesus maximized the commandments and pushed them to their logical limits, to the point at which all of us are convicted of sin.  None of us can save ourselves because no one can follow the commandments perfectly.  And were we perfect, such adherence to each and every detail of the law is no more effective at pleasing God than a herd of cattle sent up as a burnt offering.  When all is said and done, we are all still sinners.  All of us are in need of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  We cannot save ourselves, and so we look to Jesus as he stretches out his arms to us from the cross.

img_4812Of course Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.  Had he done so it would give us all permission to slip into personal and communal barbarism.  But Jesus does challenge us with a new commandment — to love one another as God has loved us.  Here too we fall short — sometimes painfully so — but this is the more positive direction that Jesus prescribes for us.

This brings to mind one last element that I often consider in my own life.  Theologians have described God as the good, the true and the beautiful.  Nowhere have I ever read that God is the legally-correct.  God’s never excused himself by relying on some technicality, and I think God must chuckle at all the technicalities that we run by him when we fall short of being good, true and beautiful.  With the patience of a parent, however, God urges us on, with words that may seem tough but in fact are quite hopeful.

So it is that God still says to us “Thou shalt not kill.”  But to it he adds this hearty postscript:  “And don’t even think about it.”  Apparently God expects a lot from us, but he saves us nonetheless.

img_4871Notes

+On February 8th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to twenty-five guests of my good friend Mary Rudden, who lives in San Francisco.  The nucleus of the group consisted of members of her book club, and to my surprise I discovered that most of them are readers of this blog.  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet them over the luncheon that followed.

+On February 9th I and my confrere Fr. Don Talafous hosted a group of twenty-five alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, at a reception held in the refectory of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  I was grateful for their willingness to brave the storms to attend that evening.

+My travels to and from San Francisco were quite memorable.  The outbound plane from Minneapolis was delayed an hour, and once half of us were on board we all had to get off because of mechanical difficulties.  They eventually brought in a replacement plane, and we arrived hours late.  On the return trip our plane arrived forty-five minutes early.  Thank goodness, because I needed that extra time to drive home.  It turned out that one tire on my car was low.  I stopped to fill it with air, and a few miles later I checked it again.  That’s when I discovered the bolt that was lodged in it.  I got the tire changed and drove home on the spare, but it meant slow speeds on side roads rather than on the interstate.  Off of the interstate you see marvelous things, including the cars driving and parked in the middle of Big Lake in Big Lake, MN, and also on another lake outside of Becker, MN.  They were ice fishing, of course.  I also discovered a town I never knew existed in Minnesota:  Santiago.  Who would have thought.  So it all turned out to be an adventure.

img_4869+As I promised in last week’s post, I am including an example of 12th-century Catalan art that I found rather gruesome, in a detached sort of way.  It is an altar frontal from the church of Sant Quirc de Durro, and it is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The lower two photos show the more benign subject matter of another altar frontal, this one from the church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, ca. 1200.

 

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