Tag Archives: Benedictines

24 November: The Road to Emmaus VII – and beyond.

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Then they said to each other, did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32).

Jesus has vanished, but at last the disciples see. They recognize Jesus. And they are able, consciously now, to lay claim to the strange and wonderful joy they felt as Jesus walked with them on the road and explained the scriptures to them.

But now they realise that what Jesus had told them on the road was a preparation for something else. His words, spoken during their journey, were themselves like the journey and not like the full arrival. The disciples did not really “arrive” until they reached Emmaus.

Then why did Jesus at first pretend that he wanted to go further than Emmaus? Perhaps he did this for the disciples’ sake, because he wanted to draw something further out of them. This seeming pretence on Jesus’ part gives the two disciples the opportunity to realise how much they want this stranger to stay with them; even though they do not realise fully who he is, they know that he is important to them, and so they then make a conscious choice and ask him pressingly to remain with them.

But, when would full recognition of the Risen Jesus come? And why hadn’t it come to them yet? Caravaggio’s painting helps us here, helps us to see that the recognition of the Risen Lord comes most fully within the context of the meal. In the Last Supper Jesus commanded the Twelve ‘do this in memory of me.’ He would now, in this “first supper” of his risen life, show them that he meant it. He would show them that this memorial of him was not an empty memory, a mere trick of the imagination, but a real encounter with him. Earlier in the day, Jesus had shown them that Scripture was about him. Now Jesus would show them that the meal is not ‘about’ something, it is something – or rather, Someone: it is Him.

The disciples’ recognition of Jesus and Jesus’ physical disappearance are nearly simultaneous. This is, in a way, a difficult truth. It is always a bit painful to me to think that the two disciples were so close to being able to throw their arms around Jesus once more, if only they had been quick enough! But, always the teacher, Jesus has something else, something more important to show them. When he disappears from their sight at the meal, this disappearance of Jesus is not like the disappearance of Jesus in death. This disappearance does not cause grief, it heals grief. The disciples begin to grasp now that Jesus’ reality remains in the meal. The disciples know him in the breaking of the bread. And, most importantly, they now realise that he has overcome death, and as such has assumed a new form. This form is the form in which we, too, must recognise and follow him.

The adventure of Emmaus happens only three days after Jesus’ death, remember. The disciples will need more time to express in words what they suddenly grasped here at Emmaus on an essential level. We need time, too. But there is so much to learn from this. Here I am, a latter day disciple, with all the advantages of understanding that result from access to two thousand years of Christian teaching. Yet, I can feel as raw and untutored as these two disciples were. And maybe that is the way things should be. It enables me to use their experience as a model and to take comfort and encouragement from their story.

SJC

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23 November, The Road to Emmaus VI; seeing.

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The two disciples cannot bear to part with this seemingly unknown man, who understands everything.

When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them saying, ’It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over.’ So he went on to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight (Luke. 24:28-31).

The great artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in 1601, captured this moment in a magnificent painting, and I have reflected on this in the form of a poem. [This painting is on permanent display in the National Gallery of London.]

Seeing Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus

We know the two disciples by their spillage:

flung arms, shocked shoulders, splayed hands.

He found them trudging toward the village –

loveable curmudgeons all wrong.

But who’s the right-hand man – studious, still,

drawn not by Luke but by artist’s skill,

drawn, by intense act of will, like me,

by desire to be with them there, to see.

For see:

not one has closed his eyes for prayer:

for Jesus is being quietly seismic.

And see, his outstreaming inwardness opens their eyes

shaken, graced, surprised beyond all telling,

they see: they marvel: they see.

Ah, yes. He tenderly gives it away. Amen, amen. This is

Him being Him so Him so real that he’s unmissable so alive

with blessing that death cannot take hold anywhere so real

that if they seize him he burns even as their hearts flame

even as they know him so real that even the shadows

cannot shadow even the shadows consecrate.

Now they may hold him only as food is held

for only the food will remain

for this is the moment

before He vanishes

like a

m

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t

,

SJC

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22 November: The Road to Emmaus V

Easter Sunday

The two disciples aren’t finished yet. They have a few more things to say to Jesus:

…[T]his is not all: two whole days have now gone by since it all happened; and some of the women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they could not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing (Luke. 24:21-24)..

Cleopas and his friend do not seem to be able to remember anything that Jesus had prophesied about himself during his lifetime. Maybe grief and shock had made them forget everything. Maybe Jesus’ prophecies had been so horrifying to the disciples at the time that they simply “blanked” them. But Jesus cannot be faulted for having failed to warn his disciples. He had, on numerous occasions, told them plainly that he would be crucified, and would die and be buried, and then, after three days, would rise from the dead. Neither of the disciples seemed able to recall this now. But Jesus, like the superb healer he is, listens intently in silence while they vent their feelings of confusion and disappointment.

At last, they pause. They have finished their tale. Maybe they are feeling a bit empty now, but surely they know they have been heard – you can always feel it when someone is listening with his whole heart. As a result, they themselves are perhaps better able now to listen than they have been all day. And Jesus does not fail to make use of this opportunity. He is bold and forthright:

You foolish men! So slow to believe all that the prophets have said! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?’ Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself (Luke. 24:25-27).

We are not told what the disciples did while Jesus spoke to them. Presumably, they continued to walk along as he talked. They seem to have been reduced at last to silence. What was this experience like for them? I imagine that they must have gone through a swift succession of feelings, beginning perhaps with dismay over being called foolish and slow. But no doubt they moved quickly to a state of some amazement at the stranger’s penetration into the situation they had described to him, and from there into a state of wonder, joy and even to a feeling of hope that they could not understand immediately. Here at last was someone who could make profound sense of everything that had happened. Here was someone who was picking up the shattered pieces of their lives and making them whole again.

Happily, this is an experience that I can say I know about also, even as I know of the distress and bewilderment that these two disciples had felt. Jesus never abandons those who love him and seek him sincerely, even if we seek him wrongheadedly. Perhaps especially then. Perhaps this endears us to him.

In my experience of discipleship, enlightenment does come. Eventually. Or, at least, partial enlightenment comes. And, by the time it comes, I am usually so happy to have it that I will accept it thankfully in any form. But, as is the case in this story, full enlightenment – the recognition of the Jesus himself in a new form – usually comes to me later, when reflecting on my experience through prayer. The disciples here are enlightened enough to be loath to part with this wonderful stranger, but that seems to be all they know. They don’t see yet that he is not a stranger.

SJC

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21 November: The Road to Emmaus, IV; they do not know they are praying.

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The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognise Jesus. But, as always, Jesus does not seem to be at a loss – I doubt he was surprised in the least. He knew who he was dealing with, knew what they needed. He therefore draws them out to begin with. He asks them what they had been talking about: ‘What are all these things that you are discussing as you walk along? They stopped, their faces downcast’ (Luke. 24:17). How poignant this is for me. The One who knows all things, delicately asks these two dull-eyed, dreary men to tell him what they had been discussing. Surely, Jesus knows that in asking that question, he is asking not only for an account of recent events; he is also saying covertly, Tell me what is making you so downcast. He is giving them another opportunity to hash everything through. But this time, it will be different. Cleopas and the other disciple do tell Jesus all about their experience. But they are not merely talking to each other now, pooling their bewilderment and sorrow. They are talking to the Risen Lord.

This, perhaps, is the first prayer to the Risen Jesus that any of the disciples had made. The two here don’t know it at the time, but they are praying, telling Jesus all about it, placing their hurts and disappointments before him – and not, incidentally, without a little dig: “Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him, ‘You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.”

Yes, haven’t there been such times in my life? Haven’t I often said something similar to the Lord – and I do not even have the excuse of not recognising him. Haven’t I said something like, “What are you about, Lord? You don’t seem to see what is going on!” I can just hear the incredulity in Cleopas’s voice, the tones of bitterness:

You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.’ He asked, ‘What things?’ They answered, ‘All about Jesus of Nazareth, who showed himself a prophet powerful in actions and speech before God and the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free.

There it is, the monumental wrongheadedness: ‘Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free.’ Whatever the disciples had managed to learn from Jesus during his earthly life, all the gospels bring out that there was one thing they never seemed to grasp: that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, and his power would never be exercised after the manner of earthly rulers and politicians. On the contrary, his kingdom was within, and the revolution he would bring about would change us as individuals on the level of our hearts. These interior changes would draw us into a community of believers, united by faith and hope in Jesus, and in love of him. In this community each person would strive to be the servant of the others. Power games or displays of domination would have no place whatever in his kingdom.

Why didn’t they get that? The same reason I don’t get it, I suppose. Oh, I might not be so silly as to think that Jesus will snap his heavenly fingers and change world-scale politics. But, what about the petty politics I have experienced in my own little world? Haven’t I fumed about them? Don’t I find myself secretly hoping that Jesus will ‘fix’ all that? And when he doesn’t, don’t I struggle with dismay and anger? We are slow learners.

SJC

 

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20 November: The Road to Emmaus III.

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And it happened that as they were talking together and discussing it, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but their eyes were prevented from recognising him. He said to them, ‘What are all these things that you are discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped, their faces downcast (Luke. 24:15-17).

This is something new. Someone comes along and walks ‘by their side’. We know, because the gospel tells us immediately, that the stranger was Jesus, but the two disciples are clueless as to the identity of this person. Why don’t they recognise their dearest friend? Why don’t they fall all over themselves embracing him? This is a question I find impossible to answer. But it is certainly another of those experiences I have had any number of times in my life.

As I muddle along through the difficulties in my life, trying to understand what seems incomprehensible, someone, or something unexpected enters my life. At times, the unexpected has come in the form of a person – a new relationship is formed. At other times, the unexpected has taken the form of a new responsibility, or set of obligations that cause me to refocus my energies and open myself to new ideas. Do I always recognise Jesus himself walking by my side in these experiences? Well, no. Not immediately.

Many times, something new is mediated through the liturgy of the Church. I am a Catholic Benedictine nun. As such, I am in church at least seven times a day for the liturgy or private prayer. This is a real encounter with the living God. But am I always sufficiently alive to this experience? Again, I must confess that I’m not. Instead, I can be preoccupied by my own thoughts, my own version of my experiences, my own hopes and disappointments.

But rather than berating myself for having missed the obvious so often, perhaps this story teaches that this is a fairly typical experience for disciples to have. It happened to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus. It happens to me. I am not alone here. Furthermore, the Lord knows what we are like, and does not leave us in our wrongheadedness any longer than necessary. We can be hopeful in a way that the two disciples couldn’t be, for we can remember that in this story, Jesus takes the initiative and helps the disciples. He came up and walked by their side. He comes up to walk with us, too. We will explore this further tomorrow.

 

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19 November: the Road to Emmaus, II.

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Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflections on Luke 24.

We are looking at the story of the Road to Emmaus, told in Luke’s gospel. Yesterday we began looking at the story’s context. It might be good to scroll back to it if you weren’t here yesterday.

The story starts out with the words, ‘That same day….’ What happened that day? First, early in the morning of the day the two disciples decide to go to Emmaus, Jesus’ tomb had been found empty by the women who went to it intending to anoint the body of Jesus (Luke. 24:3). Well, not quite empty. Two beings ‘in brilliant clothes’ were in the tomb, and they gave astonishing news to the women: ‘He is risen’, they said (Luke 24:7). But, secondly, the Eleven don’t believe the story when the women return and tell it. Then, thirdly, only Peter seems willing to suspend judgement. He visits the tomb himself (Luke 24:12), but from Luke’s account, it is hard to know what Peter is thinking, or whether this takes him any further forward. “That very same day” surprising things are happening, but still, the day can only be described as a day of deepest grief, perplexity, and fear for the Eleven.

I am there. I am Peter. Like him, I see, but do not know what to think. I am still attached to my plans – my plans, all seemingly based on a valid interpretation of God’s will for me, and which have all been rubbished by circumstances beyond my control. And a new understanding of his will is found neither easily nor immediately.

But, oh the relief that can come of talking about my perplexity and pain with someone who understands! That same day, two disciples are walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away from Jerusalem, and are taking comfort in the emotional release of talking: ‘…and they were talking together about all that had happened’ (Luke.24:13).

Their walk is a long one, probably taking several hours, and giving them plenty of time to talk. I see them walking and talking, rehearsing, probably somewhat compulsively, what had happened to Jesus, to them, to their friends over the previous few days. I see them revisiting their feelings about those who decided that Jesus would be crucified. They are talking, probably, about his mother, the other disciples, about the story told by the women who went to the tomb. They are talking about Jesus himself, and about the hopes they had had. They are trying to work out why it all happened, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense to them at all. This talking and talking and talking seems to help on one level. Each time a new insight surfaces, the hope arises briefly that maybe from this angle they will somehow be able to make sense of the whole shattering thing. So the entire experience is gone through again, with this new idea in place. But, no. Nothing really helps. No insight makes the mess of their experience turn into something coherent and meaningful. They trudge onward down the road. They can barely hold their heads up. They are depressed, ‘downcast’, as the gospel tells us.

Readers familiar with this story know that the situation will soon improve for the disciples. But, for the moment, let’s not anticipate that. Let’s remember that these two disciples are like us: they don’t see into the future. They are wrestling with an intense sense of failure on many levels: their failure in courage, their failure to understand, the apparent failure of Jesus, whom they trusted. Like these two, I can sometimes feel that my discipleship has been a waste of time, a big mistake, and all I can do is to trudge on down whatever path I have taken.

 

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5 August: The New Name

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He whizzed small stones with skill

across the still pond, the pebbles flat

and fitted to the palm, this serious play

a science of selection and synchronicity:

his muscled shoulder steered the whip-throw,

his feet danced a neat back-hop, he leaned

into the throwing side and a wise wrist flicked,

just so, as knowing fingers turned each stone

into a flight-blade – precise, and frisky with

staccato skips past counting. And so,

this power-pebble, skimming

the still pond’s top-most sparkle,

at last, and with a gentle plash, whispered

its secret as we stood side by side and gazed

upon the ever-widening rings.

SJC

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July 5: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 5: The Theological Virtue of Charity – All Gift

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I would like now to explore how the virtue of charity sheds light on our quest to understand what the saints know. [Cf. Summa Theologiae II, II, 23:1 for much of what follows.] St. Thomas speaks of charity, both toward our neighbour and toward God in terms of friendship, not only because Aristotle does, but because Jesus does: and he quotes the gospel of John, ‘I no longer call you servants, but friends.’ Yet, his is an exalted idea of friendship, as it refers to a depth of love that brings about an experience of mutual indwelling. This friendship, to be authentic, says Thomas, must be more than mere companionship. It must be directed to what is best for the loved one, and not for the self. It must also be a relationship of mutuality, so that the communication goes both ways. And, it must reach beyond the loved one to include what the loved one loves.

Thomas points out that charity is different to faith and hope. They allow us some participation in the divine life, but at a certain ‘remove.’ Charity, on the other hand, is not ‘removed’ from God. It is God.

Going through my notes as I prepared these posts, I found myself thinking with some impatience, ‘Yes, yes. God is love. I know that.’ But then I said, ‘Do I?’ If God is love, how do I even dare to ‘go there’? St. Thomas himself even says, in effect, if you take a good, long, hard look at the human person’s un-graced capacities, we should not be able to love like this (II.II.24. 2, 3). We tend to love in a way that relates to our own need, selfishly. So often, if we are really honest with ourselves, we discover that that apparently generous thing we did for someone was actually all about me. St. Thomas calls this kind of love concupiscence and not charity. God is supremely loveable alright, but, Thomas points out, our capacities tend toward what we can see, and our self-centeredness means that we often see ourselves more than we see anything else. What to do? In one of his most important uses of the concept of connaturality, Thomas explains, “No act is perfectly produced by an actor unless it be connatural to him by reason of some inner capacity to perform that action (II.II.23.2). Therefore, the love of God must be infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is the love of the Father and the Son.”

Charity is founded on a supernatural friendship of God with the human person. It is God who enables us to love. The initiative is God’s: God loves us first, God gets there first, to rephrase the First Letter of John slightly. He communicates his happiness to us, says St. Thomas, and the love that we experience in response is charity. God makes love possible for us. It is all gift.

SJC

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3 July: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 3: HOPE: Hope and Divine Assistance

SCAN0066What does this have to do with our question as to what the saints know? Perhaps it is that saints, steeped in hope, are aware of what kind of answer to look for when they turn to God in prayer. What father would give his child a scorpion when he asked for an egg, as Jesus points out. Or, to turn this question slightly, what millionaire father would give his child only an egg when he asked for an egg? Would he not give him a share in his fortune? So, when God answers my prayer for an egg by giving me his fortune, it means that I get my prayer answered on a much deeper level than the one I am prepared for. A level that usually requires a new depth of obedience to the divine will, and a deeper level of faith. It can be very scary for an egg-sized mind to receive a heaven-sized answer. Perhaps we’ve all been there. But, here is another encouraging thought from St. Thomas (II.II. 17:7): “The object of hope is in one way eternal happiness and in another way divine assistance”. For the attaining of eternal life then, “divine assistance is ready for us,” he says. This line from Thomas seems to say that God knows how hard it can be for us to allow our egg-sized hopes to become wide – indeed, heaven-sized. But, don’t worry, he seems to say. Divine assistance will get us to that wide place.

This brings us back to Thomas’s idea of ‘leaning on’ God. He seems to be saying that God is always supporting us from the wide place. The idea is simple enough: keep leaning on His help, and be at peace – something like the weaned child on its mother’s lap, as one of the psalms puts it. God’s lap is wide.                                       SJC

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July 2: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 2: HOPE: Stretching our Soul

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We are not very well equipped to deal with the infinite – our “small durance… with the steep or deep,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it in one of his sonnets. There are times of pure pain in our lives. How does this fit with our reflection on hope? I cannot treat here the theme of suffering in depth, but perhaps it can be integrated into these reflections by understanding suffering as the ‘education’ of our hope, as something that gradually ‘stretches’ our deepest being and equips us for the Infinite. And as something we get through only by leaning on God’s help.

St Thomas says:

For we should hope from him for nothing less than himself, since his goodness, whereby he imparts good things to his creature, is no less than his essence. Therefore the proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness. (II. II. 17.2).

Eternal happiness is the object of hope. It is, therefore, a difficult virtue, inasmuch as it is directed to eternal life rather than this earthly life.

Right,’ I say to myself. ‘Hope as a theological virtue is always directed to a good that has not yet been attained. In the theological virtue of hope, I hope for eternal happiness – but I’ve got to die first in order to attain it. That’s part of the problem. And the other part of the difficulty is that the theological virtue of hope places the sufferings of this life in a secondary position, as means to the end – in other words, sufferings are not always meant to be got rid of, for they have a purpose: they stretch our being, and fit it for eternal happiness. They go on for as long as God sees that they need to go on in order to fit us for Him. And that’s why hope is a virtue that must be ‘exercised’ – or worked at.

But, it’s not as grim as all that. Recall, hope is a divine gift, filled with divine life. Therefore, I have intimations of hope’s fulfilment even now, as we saw with the virtue of faith: we have “the beginnings” of eternal life. For instance, St. Thomas, in the one of the above quotations is saying that God gives us himself when we pray to him. He’s not going to give less than that, even though what we ask for is usually less than that. My capacity to recognise Him – especially in times of pain – is limited. But that does not mean that God is failing me. Rather, what comes from Him is always what will lead to a fuller share in His life: to connaturality with him – even now.

SJC

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