Thursday, February 14, 2013

Second Day of Lent -- February 14, 2013--Abbot Michael's Frist Lenten Conference

This morning we sang the hymn below at Morning Prayer!

O sun of justice, Christ our light,
Dispelling night through all the earth:
Grant day light to our inmost souls,
And grace the world with second birth.

Now comes the time acceptable:
Inspire our thoughts, our minds renew.
In your compassion call us back,
And bid our hearts return to you.

A contrite spirit grant us, Lord:
Redeem your church and set it free.
However heavy guilt has been,
Still greater will your blessings be.

The day is dawning, day of yours,
When all the earth again will flower,
And then may we rejoice as well,
Led onward by your grace and power.

Let all the stars in vast array
The Holy Trinity adore,
And we, by grace made new again,
New songs shall sing forevermore.


Text: Iam, Christe, sol, 6th cent, tr Hugh Tasch, OSB 1975 & 2001
Tune: SUN OF JUSTICE, LM; Gregory Polan, OSB 1975

As yesterday's hymn, this one too comes from two very talented monks of Conception Abbey. I hope to be doing more with the talent of these men/monks. Although yesterday's Lenten hymn is my favorite, there are many aspects of this hymn that really appeal to me as well. But I will dwell on just one aspect in this blog.

The appealing part for me is the positiveness and the upbeat attitude of this hymn. It seems so totally appropriate and correct theologically. Sometimes it seems that we can really drag ourselves down during the Lenten Season, dwelling on sin and death and suffering and pain and fasting and hunger and all of that stuff.

Yes, we need a contrite spirit, but as the hymn says so wonderfully: "However heavy guilt has been/Still greater will your blessing be/The day is dawning, day of yours/When all the earth again will flower.."

With Christ death, sin, evil, bad stuff --- IS never stronger than life and love and compassion! Christ is the sun (Son) of justice. And as the sun dawns and dispels darkness, so Christ -- the sun of justice brings light to our souls.

Wow! That is powerful stuff! But it IS what we believe. Isn't it wonderful?

So singing and believing these words this morning coupled with Abbot Michael Liebl's conference last evening after Evening Prayers, was a great juxtaposition of positiveness and an upbeat attitude for me.

I asked Abbot Michael if he could send me a copy of his first Lenten Conference so that I could include it in this blog and complete my experience of the beginning of Lent with many others. Abbot Michael agreed and it follows below. He just asked that I mention that his words are his "take" on what Br. Simeon Levia-Merikakis, a Cistercian monk of St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass., presented at the abbots workshop in early February.

For me it was great positiveness and an upbeat attitude. Enjoy!

Perhaps one more little anecdote-- one of our alums is a monk of St. Joseph's Abbey-- Br. Tom Langenfeld. He is the treasurer there. Tom is a graduate of the class of 1980. It is a good feeling to know that we have alums as religious, who are likely remembering us in prayer and perhaps might admit that a vocational seed was planted in them while being at Mount Michael as a student.

I would like to base my Lenten conferences on the talks which were given at the abbots workshop at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside. The talks were given by Br Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, a Cistercian monk of St Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. As his last name probably hints, Br Simeon has an interesting background. He was born in Cuba of a father with Greek heritage. His mother was American. He was 12 years old at the time of Castro's revolution. Because his mother was American, his family was able to leave Cuba for the United States. He grew up in Endicott, New York. Eventually he married and had three children. He also has six grand children. He became a professor at the University of San Francisco. He taught there in a Catholic great books program. That is he specialized in Catholic literature which touched on central themes philosophers and theologians have undertaken in every age - what is the meaning of our existence. How do we make sense of our own personal experience in the world? What role if any does God play in this world?

Though he did not give many details about his personal life, Br Simeon reported that twelve years ago, his marriage ended. He had been married for 30 years. The end of that relationship plunged him into despair. He suffered from what he called a kind of anxious death. He found that he could not be near high windows. He lost all confidence in the direction of his life. He fell into depression, was treated by doctors and psychiatrists including a regimen of psychotropic drugs. Up till the end of his marriage, he had really never had a need for God. He was living in a state of de facto conceit. When things began to fall apart if his life, for the first time he tasted real despair. One day he said I realized in horror that I had never spontaneously said to God, I love you. I had never felt that love consciously. I was too enamored with my own competence and my academic and social successes. I was the creator of my own life - or so I thought. Only when he realized that he was unable to save himself, only at that point did he being to understand what real faith might be. He said all this as one speaking from an experience of having gone to a very dark place at one point in my life. Natural despair is start of supernatural hope. Not necessary for everyone to have to go through that. Perhaps not everyone needs to be broken down to move ahead. But for him it was the starting point of a new life.

About 10 years ago, he came to the monastery at Spencer. There he found a direction and a vocation which seemed to restore both direction and meaning to his life. At the age of 66, he is due to be ordained a priest in April of this year and has asked for prayers as he embarks upon this new phase of his life. Because of his background in teaching and thinking about Catholic great books, Br Simeon is much devoted to contemplative consideration of the Scripture and other Catholic resources. He wrote a book entitled Are You Afraid of the Thief? A Cordial Approach to Lectio Divina. In the book he introduces and exemplifies the practice of lectio divina through a meditation on Mark 3:13-15, the passage in Mark's Gospel that describes the formal calling of the Twelve. The essay begins and ends with a reflection on St. Therese of Lisieux, who shows us that the content and goal of a contemplative reading of the Scriptures is an encounter with the living Christ Jesus who communicates the mysteries of his life and gradually transforms us into his very image.

The title of the talks which Br Simeon gave to the abbots was The Refusal of Joy. He began his talks with this simple question which we all heard when we first took a catechism class. Why were human beings created by God? We were created for joy - that is we were created for God. We were created for the act of loving within the knowledge of being also loved. There is a difference between natural enthusiasm and supernatural joy and it is essential not to confuse the two. Supernatural joy can encompass enthusiastic fun, but the two are not synonymous. Archbishop Rowan Williams has made a point of saying that Christ's humanity is a manifestation of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Created by God in his likeness, by our nature we share in Christ's humanity. Speaking about God and speaking to God presupposes that God is speaking to us and that we are paying attention. In that context, contemplation is selfless attention to the other. It is a selfless attention to God that brings life and not death. To be contemplative like Christ is to be in communion with God. To be contemplative like Christ is to reduce our own fantasies to silence. To be in communication with God through Christ is both to experience love and to experience joy. We may not realize it, but we have a vocation to joy. Sometimes we feel guilty about being happy or we feel guilty about being loved. We have been brainwashed into believing suffering is identification with God. Unfortunately in our busy world, contemplation has been edged out of our lives and so it is easy to forget that we are called to love and to joy. Christianity is a proclamation of joy - that Christ has saved us all. Only joy allowed Christianity to conquer the world. Evangelization is simply an overflow of the joyous proclamation that Christ has saved us. The harshest thing we could say about ourselves is to repeat the accusation that the philosopher Freidrich Nietsche once made - Christians are a joyless lot. It should not be that way.

So there arises a question. Why should there be a problem with Christian joy? Why does there seem to be a refusal of Christian joy among monastics? Perhaps it is because we are too close to the source of joy and so we overlook it. Perhaps we are blind to what we experience in our very midst. Perhaps we mistake joy for a simple emotion. Joy does not mean a self constructed, self generated euphoria. Joy is the by-product of communication with God that comes from God. We were created for joy - that is for God, the act of loving within the knowledge of being also loved. The trinity is substantial joy.

So to offer some insights into the refusal of joy, Br Simeon took as his starting point the Parable of the Wedding Feast as given in the gospel of Matthew. As a refresher, let me read for you the account of that parable which St Matthew gives.

Matthew 22:1-14

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen."

The refusal of those who are invited to come to the wedding feast is at the heart of this parable. Christ in the person of the king is inviting his guests to come to share his joy. If we were to consider a communal event that most clearly speaks to both the values and to the accomplishments of any human culture, it would be hard to think of a better choice than a wedding feast. The king has a son who is about to be married. Think of the pride of any father who has a child that is about to be married, much less a king. The king wants people to come to celebrate his joy - to make it their own joy. The king is offering the very best that he has from his kingdom - the best food and the best drink to nourish the body. The king promises beauty and music and dance to nourish the soul. All those pieces of our existence which enhance our lives, which make us happy to be alive are offered at the wedding feast. The wedding feast promises continuity. Because his son is being married, the kingdom will endure. There will be heirs. There will be more joy and feasting in a future yet to come. There is absolutely no cost to those who have been invited. You don't have to pay anything to come to the wedding feast. Nothing even remotely uncomfortable or unpleasant is going to happen. It is a purely a celebration of life, of love and of joy. Jesus likewise sends his servants to call those summoned to the wedding feast. In the book of Genesis, God went into the garden looking for Adam. Adam was not looking for God. God was looking for him just to enjoy Adam's company in the cool of the evening. But Adam allowed his own guilt to separate him from God and made him hide. Jesus says to us, Come eat and drink, why do you spend your money and effort for that which does not satisfy. The covenant which God offers in the person of Jesus Christ does not need to be purchased. You do not have to earn God's goodness. Come to me and I will give your rest. But listen to the words of the parable. “He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.” Consider the sadness in that statement. There is an invitation from God to come to enjoy life. Unfortunately God is turned down by the ones he most wants to pamper. The reaction to Jesus invitation is too often rejection. You do not believe in the one he has sent me. You do not want to come to me to have life. You do not want to come and share my joy. What we can consider brothers as we begin this season of Lent is whether or not we are stubbornly turning aside from God’s invitation and refusing to join in his joy – a banquet freely offered at absolutely no cost to us. Yet we still choose not to come. It is something we can consider during our Lenten journey. I will continue to follow Br Simeon’s thoughts in the next conference

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