Posts Tagged ‘Year of Mercy’

IMG_0016Christ is Truly Risen.  What Now?

We can only hope that for most Christians around the world Easter services were a truly moving experience.  At Saint John’s a familiar set of rituals carried us through Holy Week and into Easter, but that familiarity also provided moments of insight.  The music in particular was eloquent, and the abbey schola introduced a few new pieces of music.  Still, those new pieces were imbedded in a round of hymns and chants that have by now become part of our bones.  As a result, we don’t always need to glance at the text to sing the notes and words.  That comfortable familiarity, it seems to me, is a necessary ingredient for transforming liturgy from theater into prayer.

Of course the focus of the Triduum is not the music but the message.  Jesus is truly risen, and so Easter is more than a celebration of an unjustly-accused guy who got the last laugh on his persecutors.  The message is more profound, and it’s this:  “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son.”  Not only did that son share in all the difficulties of what it means to be human, but there’s one thing more.  When all is said and done, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.  Rather, salvation is God’s gift to us.  It’s God who gently tugs at our sleeves and persistently pulls us toward the eternal.  It’s God who keeps whispering in our ears, inviting us into eternity.  That initiative is part of what it means when we say that God has mercy on each and every one of us.

IMG_7174So now that we’ve celebrated the resurrection, what’s next?  Well, we might rest content in the belief that God has mercy on us, the Lord has saved us, and there’s nothing more to do.  But there is more.  Believe it or not, God intended that Easter be only a beginning.  At Easter God coopts us into a lifetime of showing mercy in an often merciless world.

When Pope Francis proclaimed a year of mercy, I have to confess that my reaction was a less-than-hearty “ho-hum.”  The very idea seemed abstract and general, like many of the bland petitions we recite before the Offertory at Mass.  Who isn’t for peace on earth and an end to world hunger?  Who wants to see more disease and injustice?  But that of course creates some tension within us.  Who among us is really in any position to do anything about these gargantuan challenges?

For all those reasons and more, I thought of the Year of Mercy as little more than a pious exercise, and I prayed that someone would wake me when it was over.  But all that changed when I casually turned the pages of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book  on mercy.  There, right in the middle of the text, he roots the Year of Mercy in what used to be familiar territory for most Catholics.  As bland as a Year of Mercy might seem at first glance, that year is planted in the soil of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

IMG_1134Just when I was about to exempt myself from the need to solve problems that existed primarily on the other side of the world, Kasper reminded me that pretty much all I need to do when it comes to mercy is local.  In fact, his words are an uncomfortable wake-up call.  Unless I am willing to treat as Christ the people living down the hall or across the street, then there is really no point to the high-minded aspirations about people who live 6,000 miles away.  In short, if it’s true that charity begins at home, then so do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  That, it seems to me, is part of the takeaway from Easter.  If at Easter the Lord shows mercy by reminding us that we cannot save ourselves, then the irony is that God uses us to reach out to others.  We become conduits of God’s mercy to family and friends and co-workers — and even to strangers.

IMG_1130In the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter the Lord enlists us to be the hands that do his work of mercy in our own little world.  We feed the hungry.  We visit the sick.  We bury the dead.  And it is we who perform all these day-to-day works of mercy that demonstrate God’s continued love.  These are among the many ways in which the Lord shows mercy to each and every person, and it’s our awesome responsibility to do our part.  As professed Christians it’s the commission from which we cannot excuse ourselves.

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, we can rightly ask ourselves what comes next, and the answer is simple.  You and I are channels of God’s mercy, and it’s not enough to say that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are just lovely aspirations.  They are in fact the checklist of what it means to be Christian.  It’s not enough, then,  to be hearers of God’s word to us.  For better or for worse, we must be doers as well.


+While the music over the Triduum in the Abbey was both moving and meditative, we did have one lapse that reminded us that we have not yet reached perfection.  The Psalm tone for the Magnificat on Holy Saturday evening was new to us, and it showed from beginning to end.  We never did get it right, and so the abbot’s side of choir reverted to a tone that we remembered from somewhere else.  The prior’s side of choir never could make up its mind, and they sang three versions simultaneously.  The whole thing brought smiles and even chuckles, which was okay because it was after all the eve of Easter.  Like Amish quilters who always add a mistake to remind themselves that only God creates perfection, so our Magnificat that evening demonstrates that God still has work to do with us.

IMG_1129+We were delighted to host several guests for the Triduum, including several Chinese priests who are doing graduate studies in the United States.  Sponsored by Maryknoll, they joined two priests from China who are currently living and studying with us at Saint John’s.  The vocations office conducted a three-day retreat that included several graduates of our Benedictine Volunteer program, and several of the monks participated by giving conferences to them.  Meanwhile Fr. Dale conducted a Triduum retreat at the Abbey guesthouse.

+On Easter Sunday morning we woke to a thin blanket of snow that reflected the change to white in the color palate of the liturgical season.  Thankfully it was gone by 9:30 am, and by afternoon we were looking at green lawns once more.  The latter are a harbinger of the green of Ordinary Time.

+The top photo in today’s post is one I took looking east over San Francisco Bay in February.  I opened the curtains to behold the rising sun, and I realized that the view would not last for long.  So I rushed outside with my phone camera, and it turned out to be a photo that I knew would appear in an Easter season post.  The second photo is of an icon by Aidan Hart, enthroned in the Abbey church.  The other photos illustrate the dusting of snow that greeted us on Easter morning.

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IMG_0024_2Is There a Merciful God?

Nearly a year ago the members of the Order of Malta in Seattle invited me to give a day of reflection, on the theme of the “year of mercy” that had been proclaimed by Pope Francis.  Since I’m used to giving retreat days, this was hardly an insurmountable challenge.  Still, the theme of mercy was one I’d not considered before.  But with a year to prepare, how hard could it be?

Ask anyone a year in advance to do something and it will seem like no big deal, and that was true in my case.  So I conveniently filed the request away, confident that I would find plenty of material just in the nick of time to craft some decent conferences.  This was not the first time I’d made such a foolish mistake, but this was something I only discovered eleven months later.

With the retreat less than a month away, I’d not come up with a single idea that I could use, and I started to worry.  Then one day I began to panic.  What in the world could I possibly say that might inspire me, to say nothing of the people I was supposed to inspire?

IMG_0019_2Saint Benedict in his Rule reminds monks that sometimes wisdom is found in the youngest monk, and it was one of my youngest confreres who saved me by his recommendation of a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, appropriately entitled Mercy.  Cardinal Kasper had begun the book after reflecting on the importance of mercy in the writing and preaching of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and he had hoped to turn his thoughts into a series of retreat conferences.  Unfortunately his retreat conferences never quite materialized, but for me this book was a God-send.  His nuggets of insight saved my hide in Seattle two weeks ago.

As we begin Holy Week, one point that Kasper makes early on in his book seems especially apropos.  It deals with a conundrum that we confront, and it touches on the leap of faith that all of us must decide whether we’ll make.  If there is indeed a God, then how can we call that God loving and merciful in the face of the horrors of the 20th century?  That is a variation of the age-old question that has dogged every believer.  How can a God who is all-powerful and good stand back and allow hideous things to happen to decent and undeserving people?

Kasper describes one modern response, which is to deny the existence of God altogether.  A good God simply could not allow the horrors of the 20th century, and so to protect God’s reputation we have to deny that God exists.  That certainly is one way to resolve the dilemma, but to my mind it leaves us high and dry in answering two questions left on the table:  from whence does our existence come, and what is the purpose of our lives?

IMG_0018Kasper’s elaboration on this issue is too much for this short reflection, but he goes on to write that the Christian response to all this is the point of Holy Week.  As Christians we believe that God is loving and does care, and a God who shows mercy is a primary attribute of the source in whom we live and move and have our being.  That is the message that the liturgies and readings of Holy Week seek to communicate.

Christians affirm that our life has its origin in the creative act of God.  God does love us and God does wish the best for us; but God also gives us the free will that allows us to formulate our destiny.  Just as parents bring children to life and watch them mature, they must also eventually stand back, let go and let them make their own mistakes.  So God does with us, because without free will any response we make to God is pointless and predetermined.  With free will our response can be one of authentic love, however.

During Holy Week the Christian community proclaims that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to share in our existence.  God did not spare that son from the same  horrors that can afflict us all, but God did affirm that tragedy is never the end of the story.  There is always redemption to be found, even in suffering.  The ultimate direction of our lives, then, is resurrection and continued life with God.

IMG_0026_2So if God does exist, as we believe, is God aloof and uncaring?  Does God get riled up by our petty misdeeds and our high crimes?  Does God get his jollies by allowing waves of catastrophe to crash upon us?  Not at all, and that’s the point of Holy Week.

Though God tends not to intervene in our lives like an omnipotent superman, God does care.  God does love us.  God does show us glimpses of mercy that pull is little by little along the path to the eternal.  And on a practical level God’s fundamental message of salvation is one of mercy.  That mercy is something we can experience every day of our lives.

Mercy is the corollary to the painful conundrum of the passion and death of Jesus.  And so mercy is what I will write about next week as we celebrate Easter.


+On March 16th we were surprised to look out and see that the ice had gone out from Lake Sagatagan and the other lakes at Saint John’s.  It may not have been the earliest date for this, but it was not far from the record.  The warm spring does not bode well for collecting a lot of maple sap, but I don’t think we are ready to trade our warm days for a return to snow and ice.

+On March 20th I attended the first of a series of meetings in Naples, FL.  The series will end with a reception on the 22nd for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  Happily I will be back at Saint John’s in time for the Triduum.

+This was a challenging week for my sister and our family.  On Tuesday and Wednesday her husband suffered two severe heart attacks, and he is lucky to be alive.  On Thursday they became grandparents once again.  Happily the baby was born at the hospital where my mother volunteers, and the birth took place on her volunteer day.  So my mom had the privilege of seeing her new great-granddaughter just hours after the birth.  On a different front, a dear friend has had her cancer return.  Please keep her and my brother-in-law in your prayers.  Thank you!

IMG_0138_2+The photos in today’s post come from the marvelous cycle of frescos at the Abbey of Subiaco, to the south of Rome.  It was here that Saint Benedict began his life as a hermit.  As disciples gathered around him the community grew, and eventually he moved to Monte Cassino.  Fortunately these medieval paintings have survived in good condition.  Among the prized items is the only portrait from life of Saint Francis, made shortly after his visit to Subiaco.

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