Of gods and men

From Father Christian, the Benedictine monk in the film of gods and men, before being killed by Islamic militarists:

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.

Stanley Hauerwas Quote

‘I can think of no more conformist message in liberal [democratic] societies than the idea that students should learn to think for themselves.  What must be said is that most students in our society do not have minds well enough trained to think.  A central pedagogical task is to tell students that their problem is that they do not have minds worth making up.  That is why training is so important, because training involves the formation of the self through submission to authority that will provide people with the virtues necessary to make reasoned judgment.’ (Hauerwas)

Good News

As Christians and Muslims continue to interact and we struggle to find ways to communicate the faith, listen to the words of missionary Frank Laubach from the early 20th century.   Laubach was a missionary to Muslim Moros people on the Island of Mindanao.

What right then have I or any other person to come here and change the name of these people from Muslim to Christian, unless I lead them to a life fuller of God than they have now?  Clearly, clearly, my job here is not to go to the town plaza and make proselytes, it is to live wrapped in God, trembling to his thoughts, burning with his passion.  And, my loved one, that is the best gift you can give to your own town.


‘The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability of the community.’—Rule of Benedict 4:78.

‘[A monk] should not annoy his brothers.  If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.’—Rule of Benedict 31:1-7

‘If you have a disagreement with someone, make peace with them before the sun goes down.’—Rule 4:70-74.

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (Ephesians 4:26)

“The true city, the holy one, allows us, in the words of Paul Philibert, an alternative ‘vision of human relationships where beauty is more desirable than financial profit, friendship more precious than advantage, and solidarity in a common vision of human dignity more compelling than self-fulfillment.’”—Kathleen Norris.

“I have abandoned my life in the town as the occasion of endless troubles, but I have not managed to get rid of myself.”—St. Basil the Great.

‘There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable.  There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made.  That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gifts.’ –Joan Chittister.

Why are at your current job?  Why are you at your current church?  Why are you in relationship with the people you are in relationship with?

What ‘rule’ (or rules) undergirds your job, church, and relationships?

What do we have to lose when we do not ‘stick it out?’



Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience…Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out…(Rule of Benedict, Prologue)

“Into the midst of all this indistinguishable cacophony of life, the bell tower of every Benedictine monastery rings ‘listen.’  Listen with the heart of Christ.  Listen with the lover’s ear.  Listen for the voice of God.  Listen in your own heart for the sound of truth, the kind that comes when a piece of quality crystal is struck by a medal rod…[Modern life] does not prepare us for the slow and tedious task of listening and learning, over and over, day after day, until we can finally hear the people we love and love the people we’ve learned to dislike and grow to understand how holiness is here and now for us” (Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled, 23, 26).


Listening (intently) and Obedience go hand in hand.  See what factors this week cause you to be distracted and inattentive to God’s voice, your friend’s and family’s voices, and your own desire for Christ’s presence.

Make note of these distractions then ask the tough question, ‘why am I distracted by this?’ Reflect also on times when you most attentive to God and to others.  How can you integrate those times into everyday life?

Why we need Burqas and Mosques



France has mandated by law the Muslim Burqa offensive to French culture.  It is now illegal for a woman to don the traditional Muslim dress in France.  If they are caught they must pay a fine and take a ‘cultural awareness’ class.  We all know the uproar over the Mosque and cultural center being planned two blocks from Ground Zero in New York.

Beyond Western sensibilities and patriotism, it is interesting to hear arguments against Muslim practice based on either so-called American Christian culture or so-called American Christian beliefs.  Islam is not Christian. I am not Muslim.  In discussion with Muslim friends we have sharp disagreements over truth and, mostly, over the identity of Jesus. 

However, Burqas and Mosques are a good thing for Christians. For one, in a radically secular culture that values universal human rights and pluralism above anything else, religious freedom for one will ensure religious liberty for the other.  But the key issue is one of visible, and audible piety.  Should we be offended when a Muslim hears the call of prayer on our soil and prays five times per day?  Should we be intimidated by women in black burqas?  Certainly not on the basis of Western democracy.

What burqas and Mosques should do for the Christian is to provide a deep challenge and a sense of shame that we have a faith that few actually follow.  Would a Christian risk occupation to pray at the set hours of the day (ancient Christians prayed seven times per day)?  No, ‘we can pray anytime’ is the usual argument we hear.

The Adhan is not offensive, only a reminder that Muslims pray and American Christians use excuses not to.  The burqa is not offensive because it is a reminder that Christians have little visible presence in our culture, save scandals and politics.

Receive the challenge of Islam.  And pray.  And be salt and light.


On Possessions:

The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root…let no one all or take to himself anything as his own (cf. Acts 4:32).  Rule of Benedict Ch. XXXIII

We have been brainwashed to believe that bigger houses…more luxurious gadgets, are worthy goals in life. As a result, we are caught in an absurd, materialistic spiral. The more we make, the more we think we need in order to live decently and respectably.  Somehow we have to break this cycle because it makes us sin against our needy brothers and sisters and, therefore, against our Lord.  And it destroys us.  Sharing with others is the way to real joy.  Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

…the rich man…who held his things lightly and who did not let them nestle in his heart, who was a channel and not a cistern, who was ever and always forsaking his money—this rich man starts (in heaven) side by side with the man who accepted, not hated, his poverty.  Each will say, “I am free.” George MacDonald.

(From Benedict’s Way, Lonni Collins Pratt and Fr. Daniel Homan, O.S.B, pg 98-99.)

St. Francis of Assisi said, “If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”. Also, Francis reasoned, “what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige. They are truly free.”

Benedictine harmony and Benedictine balance demand a simpler approach to life, not for the sake of false asceticism but for the sake of human freedom.  The gods we have made for ourselves take so much more adoration time than any human being has to give.  Joan Chittister, O.S.B.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-33.

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” Luke 12:27.


Part of dealing with how possessions effect our lives, is to be aware of how we spend and what certain material things mean to us.  Do we buy things to fill a need?  To keep us company?  To help us avoid our own brokenness?  Do we buy for status? 

Merton Again

There was nothing perfect about Thomas Merton. He is a man with flaws and misgivings. The center of his life though, I believe, was his passionate relationship with Jesus. It was Christ that called him in his rebellious times, it was Christ that made him a monk and priest, it was Christ that gave him the skill and wisdom to write and it was Christ who forgave him when he fell. I believe it was his confidence in the orthodox faith that allowed him to get close to some in the religious East. It was Jesus who gave him the restlessness of another country, a restlessness that never left him. Two final reflections, first, it was his Christ-centeredness that made his visits to Asia important and second, it was Jesus who undergirded his desire for compassion and justice.First, Christ brought Merton to Asia.  Merton writes, “I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc, but there can be no obscuring the essential difference—this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of reality as a source of grace and life.”[1] Merton saw the way the West had struck militarily against the East and how that had damaged and broken the world. He saw in himself the opportunity to be Christ to them. He did not proselytize, but in his silence he was able to have an impact. A nun in China asked why the Catholics were not evangelizing more in their context and Merton replied, “What we are asked to do at present is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”[2]For Merton there was no agenda, no approach, no strategy to convince Buddhists and Hindus of the truth of Christianity; only an appreciation of them and what they had to offer the world. He saw the West lacking what they possessed. He writes, “We need the religious genius of Asia and Asian culture to inject a fresh dimension of depth into our aimless thrashing about. I would almost say an element of heart, of bhakti, of love.”[3] This was not a capitulation to Eastern religions but an acknowledgment of beauty and truth wherever it may be found. Merton may have gone further than many Christians would be comfortable but in the end the Dali Lama said of Merton, “Whenever someone speaks to me about Jesus Christ, I think of Thomas Merton.”[4]            As an important aside, Merton felt even more passionate about unity with the Christian East, who though divided from Catholics and Protestants, still share the same faith. Merton’s beautiful quote is one I hope to emulate in my own life. He writes, “If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians…We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”[5]            Lastly, it was Jesus who brought Merton to a place of non-violence and a longing for justice in his own heart. Merton spent time in a Catholic community in Harlem and also met and corresponded with Dorothy Day. He saw the need for peace internationally but also in race-divided America. Vatican II was happening towards the end of Merton’s life and with it theological and liturgical reform, not all of which Merton thought was a good thing. The validity of monasticism itself was in question. He sought to bring healing in the world, not through innovation but through a ‘living tradition’ and through the peaceful presence of Jesus himself.In fact, he disdained much of the liberal theology that had become avant garde.  He was attacked verbally by some ‘progressed Catholics’ on a number of occasions. He says of some of the liberal theologians, “there is no uglier species on the face of the earth…mean, frivolous, ungainly, inarticulate, venomous, and bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and…subways. The [conservative Cardinals] are bad, but these are infinitely worse. You wait and see.”[6]            For Merton, peace came through a mining of tradition, not an abandoning of it. Monastic Christianity and orthodox Christianity, as he saw it, was the eschatological witness the world needed. He writes, “The monastery is not an ‘escape’ from the world. On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.”[7] He would say not to run from tradition in seeking peace and justice, but “go further with the examination of tradition”[8] to seek change.                Merton’s life was a Christ-centered life. “Christ is the principle and end of absolutely everything that a Trappist does, right down to breathing.” Jesus drew him to do what he did and to be what he was. From the time he was drawn to the Icons in Rome even in his rebellious times to the time he drew his last breath, Christ was his companion on the way.            To conclude, I close with the words of Jim Forest, “Perhaps part of what draws so many of us to Merton is how this astonishingly gifted writer opens a door to a deeper spiritual life without pretending he is far ahead of us on the ladder to heaven. We recognize in him someone whose struggles with various demons (success, fame, sensual pleasures, the quest for greener pastures) are not hugely different from our own…Like us, he was a product of the modern world with all its attraction and distractions. But in the end, by an amazing working of grace, he was able to maintain is search for true wisdom. He attracts us because he is more than a gifted theologian and brilliant writer. He is a brother in Christ who was—and through his writing still is—able to show us the way.”[9] 

[1]Jim Forest, Living with Wisdom, 215.

[2] Ibid., 240.

[3] Ibid., 230.

[4] Ibid., 243.

[5] Ibid., 129.

[6] Ibid., 206.

[7] Ibid., 133.

[8] Ibid., 223.

[9] Ibid., 245.

What’s in a Name–A Lenten reflection


For the early Christians, training for baptism often involved looking at two different pieces of Scripture.  The first was the Sermon on the Mount, the other was the Exodus. 

The Lectionary readings for Lent often follow this ancient pattern, and today is a good example.  We have the call of Moses prior to the Exodus, we have Paul’s warnings about the children of Israel after the Exodus, and we have Jesus’ warning about the fig tree, a symbol of the faithfulness and fruitfulness (or lack therof) of God’s people.  We will focus today primarily on the familiar story of Moses.

There are no throw away lines in Scripture.  God meets Moses where?  At a bush.  Do you know what the Hebrew word for ‘bush’ is?  It is ‘tsena.  What word does that sound like?  That’s right ‘tsinai.’  The first meeting with Moses was at a little ‘Sinai,’ no less important than the Mount of Sinai.

This moment in Moses’ life, understandably was a watershed event in his life.  Remember that Moses was on the run.  He had spent his formative days as a ‘prince of Egypt’ but began to identify himself with the Hebrew slaves, because he himself was a Hebrew, a child of Abraham.  He saw a Hebrew slave being tortured by an Egyptian taskmaster, and he took the side of the slave and subsequently killed the Egyptian taskmaster.  He then fled to the wilderness of Midian and found a wife among the nomads and became a shepherd for his father-in-law.  It was while he was tending sheep that he found God–or I should say God found him.

There is an important back story that precedes the story of the burning bush, though.  You remember when Moses killed the Egyptian and became a fugitive.  What often gets missed, though is that Moses was not called to go to Pharaoh for decades.  He did his own wandering of the wilderness, filled with his own self doubt and his own searching.  He met his wife while sitting next to a well.  She and her sisters were going to draw water for their flocks and some shepherds tried to chase the sisters away.  Moses stood up for the sisters and they reported back to their father Jethro ‘a priest of Midian’ (whatever that means), that Moses had done such a thing.  Jethro rewarded Moses with his daughter Zipporah, and Moses worked for Jethro as a shepherd.  He was a shepherd for decades! 

I believe God was preparing Moses.  Moses was a silver-spoon guy raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.  There had to be something in his life that helped him to identify with his people.  When his first son was born, Moses named him Gershom—which means, alien, sojourner, stranger, for, as he says, ‘I have been a stranger in a foreign land.’  Moses became an exile.  Moses was a refugee—God saw to it.  God was God in Moses’ life before he even acknowledged.  God is God of the past as much as he is God of the present.

Moses was prepared for the burning bush. 

The burning bush was more than an experience of enlightenment for Moses.  This was more than him ‘finding himself’ or self-actualizing.  This was a living encounter with the living God.  I emphasize–the living God.  This is a God with a name, this is a God with an identity.  And Moses comes face to face, or at least voice to voice with this God.

Notice when Moses sees the burning bush and hears the voice of the Lord (apparently through the mediation of an angel) what he is told immediately.  ‘Come no closer.  Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.’

Why would the Lord command Moses to ‘come no closer?’  Why do you think?  Because it was dangerous!  There is a wildness, a holiness about God that we have to continue to remember.  Scripture is clear that God is a loving, forgiving and merciful God.  But Scripture is also clear that there are times when we must take off our shoes and stand back, to bend the knee and to bow the head.  He is holy, he is altogether different from us.  He is no pal or buddy–he is the Almighty Lord of heaven and earth.

There are times when we should speak to the Lord as we speak to a friend or brother.  There are also times when we must shut our mouths in the face of his holiness.

Annie Dillard is great on this point.  Referring to us and our liturgy she says:

‘The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.  I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed…If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe genuinely shocked.’

The first command of God to Moses, this venerable figure of the Old Testament, was ‘come no closer…take off your shoes, the place on which you stand is holy ground.’

As Kallistos Ware has said, ‘Our encounter with God is like someone walking over the mountains in the mist: we take a step forward and suddenly find we are on the edge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath our feet but only a bottomless abyss.’

Moving on, notice the phrases that come from the lips of the LORD.  ‘I have seen.’  ‘I have heard.’  And, ‘I know.’  ‘I have seen the misery of my people, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings.’

This is not the deist God that Americans know and love, this is not some ‘unmoved mover’ or some generic god or power of heaven.  This is, who?  ‘The God of your fathers (your ancestors).  The God of Abraham, Isaac and the God of Jacob.’  He is intimately involved with his people.  He is also a God who promised to deliver Israel–unfortunately for them, it took 400 years, but in case they forgot who he was–he is a God who saw, and heard, and knew them all.

But there is another important verb.  Not only does God say that he sees and hears and knows; ‘I have come down to deliver them.’  

Next, look at the call of Moses.  As we know, Moses is full of objections.  ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharoah?’  In the same scene, Moses says, ‘I cannot speak, send someone else.’  Notice that God does not say, ‘Oh you’re a good guy, you can do it.’  Rather than spending time giving a pep talk to Moses, God rather puts the emphasis on himself.  ‘I will be with you.’  Later he says, ‘who gives a man his speech, is it not I the Lord?’

In Moses ministry and call, he had to concentrate on God and never himself.  Also, Moses had already started to move out in his call whether he realized it or not.  He stood up to the Egyptians, he stood up to the shepherds who were abusing the women at the well.  He was starting to be a voice for the voiceless, the defender of those who could not defend themselves.  God had called him.

What is the name of the God who calls?  It is a name that Jews to this day do not attempt to speak.  It is the Hebrew letters yod, he, waw, he.  That is YHWH.  In the original Hebrew text there are no vowel points and since the name is not uttered, Jewish scribes have simply used the phrase ‘Adonai’ or Lord whenever the name comes up.  Even in most of our English translations of the Bible, when the divine name comes up we translate it LORD.  This points to the fact that there is an unknowingness about God’s name.  There is an English medieval book written by an anonymous monastic simply entitled The Cloud of Unknowing.  That’s a great title.  There will always be an element of the ‘unknowingness’ of God.  As much as he has been revealed in Scripture, there are things about God that he prefers us not to know.  Remember his answer to Job—where were you?…  Gregory of Nyssa said, ‘God’s name is not known; it is wondered at.’

However, the diving name is not totally ambiguous.  The word comes from the Hebrew verb ‘to be,’ and we translate it ‘I AM.’  The word, incidentally only exists in the Old Testament and is found in no other literature.  So what does ‘I AM’ mean?  It is not primarily talking about the nature of God, because that is unknowable–but his relationship to us.  To be the I AM means that his presence and his purpose have nearness and immediacy.  To be the I AM is to have the ability to ‘bring about what is not currently present,’ as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruegemann has said.


There was no way out for the children of Israel.  But God is near.  I AM is near.  I AM brings about what cannot be brought about.  He brings the great Exodus, the great Passover.

Reflective Christians over the centuries have looked to Moses and the Exodus as a model of redemption in Christ.  Paul himself uses the wanderings in the wilderness as a warning.  The supernatural food and drink of the Eucharist and the waters of baptism Paul sees foreshadowed in the children of Israel who were guided by Moses to the promised land.  The ancient word for Easter is what?  Pascha–that is Passover.

The Christian faith is the only faith that has dared to say that the I AM of the Old Testament made himself known in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

When God tells Moses at the burning bush ‘I have come down to deliver them’ he quite literally does so in Jesus Christ.  He has come down to deliver us. 

But we are not saved from slavery in Egypt, we are saved from the slavery of ourselves.  We are not delivered from the bondage of Pharaoh, but the bondage of the Devil.

It is interesting that when Paul says ‘there is no temptation that has overtaken you except that which is common to everyone…but with the temptation, God will provide the way out so that you will be able to endure it.’  Do you know the term for ‘way out?’  It is the word ‘Exodus.’ 

Jesus is the way out.  He is the one who saves us from our sins.  All we need do is repent.  So how do we repent in light of the holy God who calls?

Can we hear the call and do we sense the presence of Jesus?  I close with a Lenten reflection.  Donald McCullough wrote a book called the Trivialization of God.  He says,

‘[when we repent] We must pause long enough to become aware of our actual circumstances: our joyous gratitude, we discover, has led us into the throne room of the universe, and now we are in the presence of the Holy One who utterly transcends us, who holds together all creation from the smallest molecule to the largest galaxy and all history from the first page to the last, who is burning…against sin with the flame of purging love, who has claimed us in Jesus Christ and will keep us in the embrace of grace for all eternity—the God, in other words who is far more than we thought we wanted but for that reason exactly what we really need to draw us out of ourselves and away from every trivial god.’

Training for Discipleship, aka Lent


 “Catechumens will hear the word for three years.”

So says Hippolytus, Presbyter in Rome in the 3rd Century.   As time and circumstances evolved (Constantine being the major one), this training of the Catechumens was transferred to the whole of the Church in preparation for Easter (Pascha).  Lent is a time for us to diagnose the things in us that need to die.  Far from being a time of morbid preoccupation, this dying to self actually makes us more alive and more human.  If we are owned by food, or by the need for power, or the need to be the center of the world, what kind of people could we be if we laid those things aside and became what God desires in us, the attributes of Jesus–to be truly blessed.  From Matthew 5:

3 “ Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
       4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
       5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
       6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
       7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
       8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
       9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
       10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In a world of selfishness, greed, lust, and overindulging to meet needs, maybe more than ever we need Lent.