Tag Archives: Benedictines

September 12, 1775: A most pleasing effect on my mind. Season of Creation XIV.

An Island ferry docked at Mallaig.

Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.

More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.

All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.

We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’

This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.

From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.

Keeley Psalms devotions_30
Follow this link for Sister Johanna’s Psalm reflection for today, again bearing out CS Lewis and Thomas Merton:

‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’ 

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11 September: Vague religion versus Theology, Season of Creation XIII.

Times were hard in 1944. A religion that could not attempt some sort of explanation of the war that was still ongoing was no use to CS Lewis. In this extract he makes clear why. Much as Pope Francis did with Laudato Si’. There are good Christian reasons for studying the ways we are invited to prepare for the future without burning carbon, it’s not an add-on, it’s part of our share in creation, and it’s serious hard work.

A vague religion – all about feeling God in nature and so on – is so attractive. It’s all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you won’t get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you won’t get to eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. And you won’t be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

In other words, Theology is practical … if you don’t listen to theology, that won’t mean you have no ideas about God. It’ll mean that you’ll have a lot of wrong ones.

C.S. Lewis, Beyond Personality, Geoffrey Bles, 1944.

Thomas Merton felt that more listening to Scripture was also part of the picture. He congratulated Ernesto Cardenal on his translation of the Psalms into Spanish, at a time when the Divine Office was recited in Latin: ‘These are the versions we should really be chanting in choir. How few monks think of the real meaning of the Psalms. If priests knew what they are reciting every day.’

Thomas Merton & Ernesto Cardenal, From the Monastery to the World, Berkeley, Counterpoint, 2017

Here is the link to Sister Johanna’s Psalm reflection for today.

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Psalms

What is it like to use the psalms for prayer every day and many times a day?  By God’s grace, my experience of praying the psalms daily now stretches over nearly four decades.  I shall try to say a little about what I have learned during this time.

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7 July: The translation of Saint Thomas

The Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

In 1120, Thomas Becket was born in London; in 1170, he was murdered in his Cathedral. By the time his remains were translated (moved) to a new shrine in the cathedral, Canterbury had become a major pilgrimage destination and a place of healing. Perhaps relatively few of the healings recorded by the Benedictine custodians would be recognised as miracles today but those who were healed, whether by divine intervention or the workings of human psychology – mind over matter, if you will – went home rejoicing. Even King Henry II, whose tempestuous outburst spurred the four knights to confront and kill the Archbishop, came as a penitent pilgrim.

But in 1538 another king was angry. Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catharine of Aragon, who had borne a daughter but no son. Unable to attack militarily the Pope who had refused the divorce, he divorced the Church of England from the Catholic church. Thomas, the low-born bishop who had stood up to the king was now, not a martyred saint but a traitor, whose name was to be forgotten, written out of history, even out of prayer books.

This Link is to a post from Magdalene College, Cambridge. It tells how this was done, using actual books in their libraries; a good read.

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1 July: Power can be a danger, Even the Demons Submit II.

Photo from CD: After a bombing in Brussels.

Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflection from yesterday.

Yesterday, we left the seventy-two missionary disciples when they were feeling wonderful in the knowledge that they would be powerful in Jesus’ name. Jesus himself had just assured them of it (Luke 10:19). Which brings me to the next point in this reflection. It is a joy beyond all joys to work for the Lord and to be an instrument of his power and love. Jesus appreciates that the disciples are experiencing something they’ve never experienced before – and they can barely contain themselves. Perhaps they have even been slightly unbalanced by this experience. Who wouldn’t be? For, in addition to their joy, the entire experience – the journey, their success in preaching the Kingdom and in healing the sick, and, to cap all, their power over the demons – must have given this group of seventy-two men an enormous sense of power. And power can be a danger for those who wield it. No one was ever more astute than Jesus about the dangers of power. He wants the disciples to begin to understand this danger. He now has some sobering words for his missionaries.

The gospels are completely honest in recounting the instances when the disciples reveal that they are preoccupied by issues of power – their own power as a group against the Roman occupation, the apparent power of particular individuals within their group, Jesus’ power in relation to the religious establishment were just a few of the power-issues that distracted them. Jesus has repeatedly tried to lead them away from this preoccupation with power (cf. Luke 9:46-50). But now, here they go again. They have suddenly experienced a new kind of power – spiritual power. This is the most dangerous power of all. And they like it. They like it a lot.

Their words to Jesus when they arrive seem to indicate that they have seen that their spiritual power over the demons depends on their use of Jesus’ name. So that’s something. At least they have a vague notion that they are not the authors of the power they have exercised. Good, but not great, seems to be the judgement of Jesus about this. His words of warning come quickly: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you.”

Now’s the time for the newly minted missionaries to feel like the novices they are, to shuffle their feet and look down at the ground. Jesus’ words make them see that they’ve been gloating rather a lot, and feeling a bit smug and self-congratulatory – precisely because the spirits submitted to them. Jesus wants it to be very clear to them that only by his election are they themselves safe from the demonic. They must keep their attention focused not on who or what has submitted to them, but on where they themselves need to be – and who they need to submit to in order to get there. In case they weren’t sure, Jesus tells them: “Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven.”

Their names are written in heaven – that is their reason to rejoice. They must keep their focus on heaven – because their names might not have been written there. They, of themselves, are nothing special. They are safe, they are heading for heaven, because Jesus is leading and protecting them; they are strong over Satan because of Jesus’ strength working through them. They bear a power in their hands, but it is not intrinsic to them, and without Jesus, they have no power at all. Jesus is the one to be thinking about. His love is their reason to rejoice.

They began their missionary journey taking nothing with them, at Jesus’ instructions. In this way, through the extreme vulnerability that their physical poverty would have awakened, Jesus meant to wake them up to the fact that everything good that happened to them between the beginning and the end of their journey was due to his gift to them. Luke’s gospel leaves us there, ending the account of the missionaries’ return rather abruptly, and not elaborating further on the episode. We, the readers, suddenly find ourselves alone, and left to consider how this story challenges us. Where is our focus? Are we preoccupied by power-issues? Do we keep our eyes on Jesus? Does Jesus have something to say to us?

*The Bible translation used throughout this reflection is The New Jerusalem Bible.

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30 June: Even the Demons Submit, Part I.

The mediaeval masons tried to cut the demons down to size on churches like St Nicholas at Barfrestone, Kent. They knew the stories of how Jesus confronted them and sent them packing – and so did his disciples.

Today and tomorrow we are glad to share two posts from Sister Johanna that follow on nicely from Emily yesterday.

Lord, even the devils submit to us when we use your name (Luke 10:17). The disciples were elated. Seventy-two men had been appointed missionaries by the Lord and had been given their first assignment: to visit towns in the area where the Lord himself would soon be visiting (Luke 10:1f). They were meant to prepare the people for Jesus himself. Jesus gave them explicit instructions about what to wear for this, their first official engagement: normal clothes – nothing to distinguish them from anyone else, and what to pack: nothing. Indeed, they were to bring no food, no money, not even a change of clothing. No place had been arranged for them to stay when they arrived in a town: they would have to work that out when they got there. They were not to equip themselves ahead of time with anything that would allow them to feel self-reliant.

We know this story so well that we can forget how this must have sounded to the seventy-two when they listened to Jesus telling them what to do. Perhaps it seemed exciting – but I should think, too, that when they actually set out, without food supplies and with their pockets empty, they must have felt vulnerable in the extreme. It was their very first journey for Jesus, after all. They had no experience of past successes to give them confidence. They were only told by Jesus to heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” Some must have secretly worried that they’d become tongue-tied when they started to preach, or would fail miserably in their first attempt at healing. Maybe they’d even be laughed out of town.

But instead, the gospel tells us that their missionary journey was a smashing success. The actual stories of their successes are just a few of the many untold tales that lie hidden behind what is recounted in the gospels. The evangelist skips them all in this instance, and zeroes in on something else – something of greater depth and importance. Luke tells us what happens after their triumph, when they return to Jesus like conquering heroes. For, when they see him, the first thing out of their mouths seems to have been that “even the devils” submitted to them.

Now, this is truly success on a spectacular scale. Perhaps the hopes of the missionaries had been much more modest: maybe they felt that they’d be doing well if they could make the child with the tummy-ache feel better, and manage to interest a small audience in stories of Jesus’ healings and sayings. But to tangle with devils and come up trumps – would they even have imagined this ahead of time? They must have said to each other as they journeyed home, “Won’t the Lord be overjoyed when he hears! I can’t wait to see his face when we tell him!”

And Jesus is overjoyed, just as they had hoped. He affirms them. It seems that he already knew what had happened – this kind of sensational news must have spread from village to village like wildfire. He declares: ‘I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’ Hearing these words of Jesus must have felt good, very good to the disciples. And Jesus is generous, not only with his praise, but with his promises. He has more to say here about what they will be able to do. “Look, I have given you power to tread down serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you.” I like to think of the disciples’ silence as they bask for a few minutes in Jesus’ assurances – their sense of wonder and gratitude must have been profound. They would be taken care of by the Lord whenever they were doing his work. They have just had their first experience of this. They would be powerful in his name. This was an important moment for the seventy-two. Let us leave them for twenty-four hours in this state of glowing wonder, and come back tomorrow to continue our reflections.

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19 May: Saint Dunstan

Dunstan, a royal prince of Wessex, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. As well as being an outstanding pastor and royal advisor, he was a scholar, teacher, metalworker and artist. This is believed to be his self-portrait, bowing in adoration of Christ.

This post from the British Library by Andrew Dunning includes a number of portraits of Dunstan from mediaeval manuscripts, as well as a prayer written in his own hand, as seen above the kneeling figure in the picture above.

Saint Dunstan’s church, Canterbury, outside the city walls to the north of town.

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18 February: Reduced to Silence

A Lampedusa cross should reduce us to silence. This is in the British Museum, it was made from wrecked migrants’ boats.

They did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions (Luke 20:40). This sentence from the Gospel of St. Luke comes at the end of a passage that tells of an exchange between Jesus and some Sadducees. As usual, the Sadducees have an agenda. They were not keen on this upstart travelling rabbi, Jesus, and were looking for ways to up-end him. They decide that a theological debate might be a good way to do it. Therefore, they think up a rather implausible tale of a woman who outlives not only her first husband but her seven subsequent husbands (all brothers of her first husband, obliged under the Law to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for the brother’ if the previous union had been childless). Finally the widow dies. And the Saducees’s question for Jesus is: ‘At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’

The Sadducees did not accept the notion of the resurrection from the dead. The hypothetical scenario they invented is meant to illustrate how ridiculous resurrection from the dead is. They seem pretty sure of themselves here, convinced that they have articulated an unsolvable problem. They expected to stump Jesus and to make him withdraw from the conversation, a disgraced loser.

As I reread and ponder this passage of Luke’s gospel, I can see the Sadducees gathered around, the speaker feigning seriousness, while secretly flicking supercilious glances at the others. They are subtly mocking Jesus. In typical adolescent fashion, they completely overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Jesus’; they are unprepared for his skill in theological debate, unprepared for a mind and personality like his.

I would love to have been there. St Luke shows that Jesus, with consummate courtesy and intelligence, not only pays the Sadducees the compliment of taking their question seriously, but answers it on such a deep level as to leave them amazed (Luke 20:34-38). When Jesus crafts his answer, his listeners were given the privilege of observing the workings of a truly beautiful mind. Anyone who has ever been in the class of a teacher who is a brilliant and deep thinker knows how exciting it can be to witness that teacher’s handling of difficult and subtle questions – off the cuff. There is always a moment after the question is posed when everyone wonders how the teacher will deal with the problem. Then, all the students share in the moments of unexpected enlightenment that break through as the teacher unravels easily and eloquently what, to everyone else, was a very tangled knot. It is an impressive event. Even those who are prejudiced against the teacher cannot avoid, if they are honest with themselves, being impressed . They may defend against it, as did the Sadducees here, but for the moment, even they must be quietly gob-smacked.

If you want to study Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, I refer you to the text of Luke 20: 27-40. But the word-for-word answer is not actually what I want to linger over right now. What is amazing to me is that when Jesus finishes his answer to the Sadducees’s question, the whole pack of them ‘do not dare’ to ask him any other questions. This is a major achievement on Jesus’ part. The verbal cut and thrust of debate was what the professional religious thrived on, and practised daily. They were good at it and knew it. But Jesus was better. He could not be wrong-footed by them. They are, unusually, reduced to silence.

Most encounters that Jesus has in the gospels can tell us something about prayer. Can this one? At first this seems unlikely, but further reflection has made me change my mind.

There are some questions I think I need to answer honestly first. One, I wonder how prepared I am to experience a mind like Jesus’? Do I expect to be surprised by the depth of his penetration into my difficulties? Or do I want to reduce his mind to a smaller size – do I want, with at least a little part of myself, to outwit him? Two, do I realise that I am not always mature? Jesus will expose my immaturity – am I willing to accept what he may show me in that area? Three, on the other hand, I may be sincerely stumped, sincerely at the end of my endurance because of what life has thrown at me. I may ask for enlightenment, and Jesus may seem silent. In the event recounted by Luke, the Sadducees receive their answer immediately. I am, seemingly, not always so fortunate. But, what this story teaches me is that Jesus’ answer is probably going deeper than I expected. I may be right out of my depth, and that is why it seems that he has not answered. In reality, the answer is there, but I need to become deeper myself, to ‘grow into’ Jesus’ answer.

I seek, through prayer, a real encounter with Jesus, Lord and God. Like the Sadducees, I too may reach points when I do not dare to ask Jesus any more questions because of the depth of Jesus’ response to me. The Sadducees went away, however, only to continue to plot and scheme against Jesus. What do I do after I finish my prayer?

SJC

Lent is a time of prayer, a real encounter with Jesus. I’ve been saving this post from Sister Johanna till the right moment, and the beginning of Lent is a time of silence, as Our Lord experienced in the desert. It’s been something of a desert time for us all of late; let us use Lent to learn the depths of our love for those we are missing.

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18 December: Stay Awake!

“Stay Awake” is a good Advent Motto and it comes from the mouth of Jesus. We are not simply waiting for a warm, safe commemoration of his birth, though warmth and safety would be welcome this year, but we are preparing for when He comes for us in death. Over to the clear-sighted Sister Johanna.

You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house.

Matthew 24:43

I have never been happy with the notion of heaven as sleep nor taken much comfort in the prayer, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.” Paradise as a place of eternal rest makes me think irreverently of mattress advertisements. I sometimes wonder why the idea of rest has settled so firmly into the collection of metaphors we use to refer to eternal life.

These are thoughts I’ve been revisiting as I meditated recently on the text of Matthew quoted at the beginning of this post. When we think of death – if we think of death (mostly we try to avoid doing so) – it is hard to view it with anything other than dread: that moment when we are wrenched out of this painful, but familiar, existence where we are at home, and bundled into the next life – a life of which we have no first-hand knowledge. In this parable, the Lord himself brings up that subject we would rather avoid and refers to himself as the “burglar.” He can only be doing this to try to help us to view our death in another light. What is he trying to tell us?

If we are frequent readers of the gospels, this burglar image may have lost some of its freshness and originality for us. But think about it. That the eternally sinless Son of God should use the metaphor of a thief to describe himself is, along with being slightly humorous, also very unconventional. But, if we decide to take his word for it and think of him for a moment as the thief, then what – or who – is the loot? Well, us. We are what he wants to ‘steal’. And his desire for us is so intense that he likens himself to the lawless burglar, who just wants what he wants what he wants, and whose method is therefore to snatch and run with the goods.

But, if we had been awake, the parable implies, we might have prevented this ‘theft.’ I think the Lord may be employing the literary device of irony here. We cannot, in this life, be ‘awake’ enough to prevent this robbery. He will come. We will die. That is a certainty. But, in light of this parable, in no way is death to be seen as a descent into ‘sleep’. On the contrary, the parable makes me think of my death in terms of a diamond heist, with the Lord as its great mastermind, and maybe ending with a thrilling chase scene, in which he gets away with me, his diamond. One can hardly sleep through that.

The Lord’s words about staying awake, then, encourage us to think about what ‘being awake’ actually means. It strikes me that being awake, as we experience it in this life, has degrees. Awake as the mere opposite of being asleep is perhaps the lowest degree. A bit higher is the idea of conscience: keeping our conscience always ‘awake’ so that we never depart from the way of virtue. Better. But not the best. How about this as the highest level: the experience of love? Don’t we feel most deeply ‘awake’ when we love deeply? This deep love awakens parts of our being that had previously been ‘asleep’ and that we didn’t even realise we had. This must be the key to understanding heaven’s type of awake-ness. So, for me, the Lord’s words about being awake are inseparable from the experience of love. Love will ‘open us up’ as it wakes us up in heaven when God surrounds us and we are filled with his loving life, when we see with his eyes and love with our hearts perfectly attuned to his own heart. We do not know the hour when the ‘burglar’ will break in, snatch us, and wake us up to eternal love. Indeed, we cannot know when. But we can know something about what, about heaven’s fulfilment. We can know something – not everything, but something. We know it, even now, when we are awake in love.

Thank you Sister Johanna, I do agree that ‘resting in peace’ does not reconcile me to Eternity and even playing frisbee with golden crowns would pall after a couple of centuries. Let’s wait in hope and see! Will.

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16 December: Generous II

From Saiint Davids Cathedral

Part II of Sister Johanna’s reflection on our generous creator and father in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Thank you once again, Sister!

Yesterday we were looking at the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt.20:1-16), and we meditated on how God the Father, represented by the vineyard owner, searches for us ceaselessly. Today I would like to look at what happens when the time comes for the workers to be paid. .

Looking at this parable of Jesus strictly from the point of view of how to run a business, it is not a very cogent treatment of the subject, as yesterday’s post pointed out. Economics do not figure, for Jesus. Or rather, Jesus seems to be making the point that the ‘economics’ of the Kingdom are completely different from all others. Likewise, the justice of the Kingdom is emphatically not what we would expect. It was this latter point that always tripped me up when I was younger. The older I get, the less this trips me up, but let’s explore it anyway.

It used to be that when I read this parable, I would feel sorry for the workers hired in the morning, who worked hard all day long (as they are at pains to point out) ‘in all the heat’. Bad luck for them, I’d think, when the late-comers slouch in to receive their salary, and it comes out that the late ones are being paid as much as those hired early in the day. Because if the early group had known that this would happen, they could have slept late, and then strolled out to the marketplace for a few beers, and then pulled a pathetic face when the vineyard owner walked by, begged for a job, worked an hour and made a small bundle.

But I don’t think like that any longer. Age, life-experience, and self-knowledge have changed my perspective. My first thought now on reading the vineyard owner’s question, ‘Why are you envious because I am generous?’ is “Lord, I am not envious because you are generous. Relief is all I feel.” Many kinds of relief. Let’s start with the question of “when.” I learn here that the Lord ‘hires’ into the life of grace according to a timing that is entirely his own affair. This consoles me when I pray for people who do not seem to be in the Lord’s employ. I sometimes ponder the mystery of why some souls do not seem to know the Lord, or even want to know him, cannot seem to see that those who work in his vineyard are blessed beyond telling – the whole thing seems alien to them, even empty, delusional, ridiculous. But, in this parable I find that the question of when is simply not my problem, with regard to other souls. It is entirely the Lord’s prerogative to hire according to timing that only he understands, but is unquestionably right for those whom he hires. The thing to remember, the thing that gives me comfort here, is that he goes out and looks for us, as we saw in yesterday’s post. Repeatedly. Until the eleventh hour.

Then there is the matter of what this vineyard really stands for in the parable*. I like to think of the vineyard as heaven. In this interpretation, our Lord wants us to know that heaven is not a place where its inmates sit around and spend all their time singing alleluias: they work. St Therese used to say, ‘I’ll spend my heaven doing good on earth’. I think she would support this view of the vineyard. So, how wonderful that those who are ‘hired’ late in life, who late in life find the Lord and, late, learn to love him, may hope to be admitted as workers in the heavenly vineyard, along with those who received their working papers as young children. What a relief! I cannot be envious of the vineyard owner’s generosity here.

If the vineyard also stands for the life of grace on earth, which it probably does, well and good. To ‘work’ there is our joy, our greatest joy on earth. This is what makes the complaints of the workers in this parable so wrong-headed. For them, life in the vineyard is one big grind, evidently, its work something they want to do as little of as possible so that they can spend the rest of their time… doing what, exactly? Loafing about? (How boring). Living an exciting life of sin? (How addictive and miserable). Making money, becoming famous, and playing power games with people in order to get ahead? (Ditto). Doing what they want when they want? (Ok for a short time, but ultimately, no). What they don’t seem to get is that the life of grace is itself the ‘payment’. One of our deepest human and spiritual needs, after the need for love, is the need for meaning. A life in the Lord’s vineyard fulfils both needs, gives us both love and meaning. This is our payment – and this is why everyone who works for this vineyard owner receives the same payment.

Finally, there is a third reason why this parable no longer bothers me anymore. You might say that I am in the category of those who were hired early in the day. But how many of us from that category can claim, by the time we reach, let’s call it, a “mature” age, to have been faithful at every moment? Have we all worked straight through the day in all the heat? Really? Or did we occasionally lapse, flake out, slack off, waste time at the water cooler? Perhaps we are still there, in flake-out mode. Are we afraid to return to the vineyard, afraid of what the owner will say to us? This parable allows us to hope that the Lord may be generous with his mercy to us, also.

SJC.

Note:

*Scholarly treatments of this parable usually say that the vineyard stands for the covenant; those first called stand for the Jewish people, privileged since Abraham’s time. The Lord opens up the membership, invites the world in, offers them everything. The first called have no right to be jealous of this.

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15 December: Generous, I.

From St David’s Cathedral

We think of Christmas as a time of generosity, but do we stop to think what that means? Sister Johanna did not write this reflection specifically for Advent, but it challenges us to go to the roots of generosity, to the creator who gives us everything, in due season.

Why should you be envious because I am generous? (Mt.20:15)

The question, ‘Why should you be envious because I am generous,’ comes at the end of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. If you are not sure which parable I mean, have a look at Mt. 20: 1-16. Instead of recounting the whole story here in detail, I’d like to take two days to concentrate on only two aspects of this rich and beautiful parable.

The first thing that I noticed on reading the parable of the labourers this time is that the notion of generosity is evident right from the beginning in the way the vineyard owner actually goes out to the busy marketplace to look for workers to hire. He doesn’t sit back and say to himself, “I’m big and important. Let them come to me if they want a job.” He goes out looking for workers, again and again, at different times in the day – once is not enough for him; he cannot seem to rest until he has employed as many workers as possible. Is he doing this for the sake of his business? One would assume so, but the parable doesn’t exactly say this, and I am a bit tempted to wonder why the vineyard owner isn’t organised enough to know how many workers he needs to begin with.

We see him going out repeatedly, and each time finding men ‘standing idle’ in the village square and saying ‘You go to my vineyard, too.’ This suggests to me that the Lord wants us to think that this vineyard owner might be more concerned to provide work for those who need it than to run an efficient business. My theory seems even more plausible in light of what he does the last time he goes out, when it’s “the eleventh hour”. There are still people standing idly in the marketplace, and he asks them why they have been idle all day long. There’s a hint of a reproach here, I think. And their answer is not stellar: ‘Because no one has hired us’ – or in other words, “Not our fault, mate.” The vineyard owner might have written them off as lazy lumps, without a shred of initiative. But he doesn’t. He gives them a chance, too, and invites even this dubious crowd into his vineyard to work with the others.

Although there are some aspects of this parable that have given me problems over the years, this part of the story has always been easy for me to transmute into a description of God’s loving grace. True, on a bad day, I may feel that in my relationship with God, I’m the one who is searching for him, and he’s the elusive one. But when I look more deeply into the events of my life, I see clearly that God is the one who has gone out to the busy ‘marketplace’ of my life and noticed that I was not in his employ. Without hesitation, he offered me a position as a worker in his vineyard. Did I have any qualifications? Not one. This position was given to me in my baptism; with God, you learn by doing. The learning was further strengthened by the other sacraments of the Church, and was made fast by my vocation to monastic life. None of this came about because I made it happen – especially my monastic vocation (which actually took me quite by surprise). God sought me, attracted me, prepared me and made it all possible. And it’s not over yet. I now know that I will always be on the receiving end of the Father’s generosity. My search for him is always wedded to and made possible by his search for me.

What’s more, as a member of the Church, I am a member of a group, a community of other workers who are all objects of the Father’s ceaseless pursuit and beneficiaries of this generosity. I do not work alone in his vineyard. As an ecclesial community, we witness together to this mystery of call and of service. How? In terms of this parable, we can say that each one in our own way is contributing to the “wine-making” business of the Father – which is to say, we are a Eucharistic community. Our response to his invitation, then, contributes to the making of the blood of Christ, the spiritual drink – a heavenly “product.” How blessed is that?

Tomorrow, I would like to look at a second aspect of this parable. SJC.

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