14 February 2008



12 February 2008

Temptation & The Son Of God

I Lent – A
Mt 4.1-11

10 February 2008

Church of the Holy Communion

Fr. Patrick S. Allen

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In the Bible study I lead over at MUSC, we are working our way through the Apostles’ Creed, and we had quite an interesting discussion, I thought, when we considered the Creed’s first article, which begins almost exactly as does that of the Nicene Creed which we will say together in about twelve minutes – if I don’t get carried away: I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

“I believe in God the Father.” That is the first thing we Christians affirm about God, that the first person of the Godhead has revealed himself as, and eternally is, “Father.” Now some in our Bible study admitted that this can be a problematic thing, to think of and to pray to a God who is “Father.” After all, so many people have troubled, if not terribly tragic, relationships with their earthly fathers. But of course that is nothing new. St. Augustine, though his mother Monica was – quite literally – a saint, had a troubled and troubling father. Augustine was a Christian for quite some time before he could bring himself to pray to God as “Father.”

Sigmund Freud saw all this “Heavenly Father” business as an obvious projection of infantile desire. Don’t we all, he reasoned, want a figure in our lives who is strong and powerful and yet intimate and caring, a figure who is protector and provider, whose bondedness to us provides a solidity of relationship, who takes pleasure in our triumphs and shares our joys, and who grieves at our failings and shares our sorrows, someone who is committed to raise us up to maturity. Well of course we do, so Freud thought it not so surprising that at some point in the history of religions we should fashion for ourselves a god to fit the “father” bill.

Well, perhaps. But C.S. Lewis pointed out a more obvious conclusion. Lewis said, we hunger, we desire food – well, there is such a thing as food! We desire physical intimacy with our beloved – well, what do you know! Turns out there is such a thing as – since this is a family show – physical intimacy. So, Lewis reasoned, if all our other desires tend to correspond to some real world object, is it not reasonable to suppose that our desire for a Father, a Father who fulfills all our innate expectations for all a father should be – might not such a desire be taken as evidence that there is such a Person?[i]

“I believe in God the Father.” That is the first Christian affirmation. When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father.’” St. Paul tells us that when we take up that prayer, when we pray ‘Abba, Father!’ it is the Holy Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”[ii] The Anglican theologian J.I. Packer, when asked the simple question, “What is a Christian?” said “the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father.”[iii]

So it’s interesting, at least to me, that as on the first Sunday in Lent we come to this very famous account of the temptation of Christ during the 40 days he fasted and prayed in the Judean desert, it is exactly here, at the point of God’s Fatherhood and Christ’s unique Sonship, that the devil makes his attack.

So, let’s look at our lesson. It begins, “Then Christ was led up by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” Then Christ was led up. That little adverb “then” should clue us in that whatever happened immediately before is important for understanding what’s about to happen; in fact, it tells that what is about to happen is a consequence of what has just happened.

So, what had just happened? Our Lord was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan; we heard about that just a few weeks ago on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. And you remember the great exclamation point to that event: the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, and the Father speaks from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

This is my Son! I am your Father! This is the assurance given our Lord at the outset of his public ministry as follows his vocation as the Messiah of God. And it is precisely this assurance that the devil will try to shake in each of these three temptations in the desert. We see it explicitly in the first two:

If you are the Son of God . . . turn these stones into bread.

If you are the Son of God . . . throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple.

“But the third temptation breaks that pattern,” you object. No, I reply somewhat pedantically, actually it doesn’t. He showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you.’ But Jesus and the devil were both students of Scripture, and this third temptation turns out to be an allusion to Psalm 2: “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. Desire of me, and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession.”[iv]

At each point, the Adversary questions Christ’s sonship, its reality and what it means – and it is the same with us, who by grace and adoption have been made in the waters of baptism what Jesus is by nature: sons and heirs of the Father’s love.[v]

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, this season of renewed and intensified self-examination and repentance in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. We would do well to examine ourselves at just this point, even to take on as a Lenten discipline the practice of meditating on God’s Fatherhood. Are we absolutely settled, in the deepest places of our hearts, that God is our Father, and that to have God as Father is greater than whatever counterfeits of love and security the Devil would use to deceive us? Isn’t that always the basic temptation? That getting this thing, or perhaps more often holding on to this thing – this desire, this money, this relationship, this experience, this whatever – is better, gives me more security than the Father can provide, can make me more whole than can the Father’s love? Our failings and fallings are always in the end failures to rest in the Fatherly love of God.

The key thing is to remember that we are God’s children, his sons and daughters, by virtue of being incorporated by trusting faith into the unique sonship of Jesus Christ, and not by virtue of being such swell people. The danger is that we will come to a text such as this, to Jesus overcoming temptation is the desert, and see Jesus in it only, or even primarily, as our example – and not as the One by whose obedience we are redeemed, the One in whom God the Father adopts us as his children.

But haven't we already said that, or rather sung it, in the liturgy this morning? In the Great Litany, we pray the Lord to deliver us from all manner of bad things, from pride to plague to pestilence, and then the prayer of the Church teaches us to rely on those means by which God makes us his children now and one day will make us "safely to arrive at home." Means which God our Father provides, not we. And the means of course is none other than his Son, our brother Jesus Christ. After all, this is why we Christians talk about “the Gospel” – it is “good news” about what God has done for us in Christ, not about what we have done for God; it is “good news”, not “good advice.” So in the Litany we move from naming those particular evils from which we hope to be delivered, to naming those mighty acts of God by which he has delivered us. So this morning we prayed,

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity
and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation. When Christ overcomes temptation, he is much more than our example. He is not just showing us strategies for dealing with temptation; rather, he is winning a victory for us - he is obeying on our behalf. The story of Israel – the story of all God's children, the story of you and me – is repeated and taken up into the life of Christ, only – praise God – with much different results. Whereas the children of Israel – and we in our own lives – fell for the Devil's lie, doubted God's Fatherly goodness, grumbled and rebelled in their desert wanderings, Jesus the faithful and eternal Son of the Father will obey and overcome in his. Baptism unites us to Christ, making us sons and daughters - heirs all - of the Father's love.

St. Paul utterly internalized this truth, and he saw it as the death blow - or better yet, the life blow - to our wounded and fallen human nature. So in this morning’s epistle lesson he writes, For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous.

The other morning at breakfast after the 8.00 Mass, Mr. Hubbard, Fr. Sanderson and I were discussing this morning's hymn at the procession out (this is the kind of scintillating conversation we enjoy), that wonderful and familiar hymn, "Come thou fount of every blessing," and we noted that it is a shame that the editors of the Hymnal 1982 felt that the second stanza was too obscure and needed revision. Our hymnals now have the second stanza beginning, “Here I find my greatest treasure, / hither by thy help I’ve come.” But the original, goes like this:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
Hither by thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Well, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer" is, I guess, plenty obscure. Turns out it has nothing to do with Mr. Scrooge. Instead, it refers to an incident in the Old Testament in which the Lord had given the Israelites a great and miraculous victory over the Philistines. Following the battle, the prophet Samuel erected a stone monument, saying, "The Lord has helped us." "Ebenezer" is simply the Hebrew for "stone of help."[vi]

When we feel in ourselves the daily struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and especially when in that struggle we have again fallen, our hearts accuse us[vii] and our sonship is indicted – what shall we do? Well, here I raise mine Ebenezer. Here is our stone of help. We have fallen, but Jesus has overcome, and our confidence is in him who was “obedient unto death, even death on the cross.”[viii] Our baptism is into him, and it is in him and through him that the Father lavishes such love upon us "that we should be called the children of God."[ix] And it is in him and through him that we may hope "safely to arrive at our Father's home."

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[i] See Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith; C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. Also, Kreeft’s article, “The Argument from Desire”: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm

[ii] Rom 8.15,16

[iii] J.I. Packer, Knowing God.

[iv] The connection between Ps 2.7,8 and this temptation becomes more clear in the parallel passage in Luke (3.21,22; 4.5-7); there is a significant textual tradition in which the Father’s words at the baptism of Jesus are “Thou art my beloved son, this day have I begotten thee,” making the parallel precise. This reading is included as a footnote in most English versions.

[v] It is important to remember that in the ancient near east, and in Greco-Roman culture generally, only male children were adopted, normally to provide an heir for a son-less family – only sons could inheirit. This is why St. Paul, just after declaring that in Christ there is “neither male nor female” (Gal 3.28), declares that now, in Christ, we are “all sons” – and if sons, then heirs (4.4-7). Paul is not a misogynist, but is showing that in redemption and its benefits, men and women are equal.

[vi] 1 Sam 7.3-13

[vii] 1 Jn 3.19,20

[viii] Phil 2.8

[ix] 1 Jn 3.1

06 February 2008


Lent a' la Vatican.

Practically no posting from me till the great fifty days.

Grace In "Groundhog Day"

A friend passes along this excellent essay on the workings and outworkings of the Benedictine virtue of stability.

Br. Christian Raab, OSB Saint Meinrad Archabbey

The 1993 Harold Ramis film, "Groundhog Day," is the story of the television weatherman named Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself stuck in a kind of time warp in which he is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

As the film begins, Phil is portrayed as a cocky, sarcastic, self-important prima donna who resents being sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pa, to cover the Groundhog Day Festival. He spends his day in Punxsutawney ridiculing the provincialisms of the people, bragging about his chances of becoming an anchorman and trying, rather rudely, to charm his attractive producer, Rita, played by Andie McDowell.

At day's end, Phil's TV crew gets snowed in at Punxsutawney. Phil awakens the next day to discover that, once again, it is February 2nd, though he is the only one who seems to notice. He relives the whole day, encounter by encounter, no more gracefully and with even more frustration than he had the day before. He finally goes to bed, hoping that he has just suffered the world's worst case of déjà vu. However, when he awakens, he finds that once again it is February 2nd. This pattern repeats itself for the rest of the movie. Phil, quite clearly, has become stuck in Groundhog Day.

As we watch this film, we get to see Phil relive his day and re-encounter the people in it countless times. As he does this, Phil's reactions to his experience change. At first, Phil meets his fate with utter frustration and angrily lashes out at those he encounters. Then, Phil decides that a life without consequences beyond one day might be used for hedonistic pleasure-seeking.

When he ultimately tires of this, he turns his attention to trying to win the heart of Rita, but he goes about this artificially. He spends a number of days figuring out who the perfect man is in Rita's eyes, and then he pretends to be this person. Needless to say, it doesn't work.

Phil responds with despair and, believing it is the only way out of his private hell, tries in numerous ways, to end his life. However, after each ill-fated attempt, he awakens again to the same song on the radio and sees that it is still February 2nd.

Finally, Phil recognizes that his selfishness is getting him nowhere. Having reached rock bottom, he changes direction and begins to live for others. He gets to know people and respond to their needs. He feeds a homeless man. He is kind to an annoying character. He helps counsel young couple. He knows what time every day a group of old ladies get a flat tire and so he hurries there to fix it for them.

Likewise, he knows what time each day a young boy falls from a tree and he rushes there to catch in him. He discovers that he has a gift for music, which he develops and shares. He becomes part of the community he once ridiculed and, finally, in forgetting himself, he escapes his fate and reaches February 3rd.

There is something about Phil's Groundhog Day that resonates strongly with the experience of living as a novice in a Benedictine monastery. Benedictine life, especially life in the novitiate, is very structured and, like Groundhog Day, repetitive.

For example, every day begins the same. At 5:15 a.m., the bells start ringing to announce that Morning Prayer will commence at 5:30. After Morning Prayer is breakfast, then private spiritual reading. At 7:30 a.m., we return to church for Mass. When this is over, we may grab a quick cup of coffee before the workday begins at 8:30 a.m.

Coffee break is at 10 a.m. At noon comes Midday Prayer and then lunch, followed by work or class again at 1 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., the workday ends. The monks go back to church at 5 p.m. for Vespers. After this, we have another period of private spiritual reading, and then at 6 p.m. we meet for the evening meal, which is usually eaten in silence while one of the monks reads aloud from a selected text.

After dinner, monks are usually free to recreate, study or go to bed. Occasionally, we have a religious service or a conference with the abbot in the evening. The monk ends his day, goes to sleep, awakens again the next day to the ringing of the bells, and the cycle begins again. It is a structured, repetitive and somewhat predictable life. In some ways, every day feels the same.

Of course, this structured life is not just a repetition of practices but, more importantly, it is a repetition of encounters with people. It is easy to know that a particular brother can be expected to sit at a particular place in the refectory during breakfast. A certain father will be arriving at the coffee maker at 7 a.m.

Some monks will sit on this side of the calefactory during coffee break, and others will probably sit on the other side. We expect to see certain monks in the computer lab before we open the door. We know who will almost surely be playing cards after supper.

We become familiar with the sounds of monks' breathing and walking. We begin to know who will like a book and who will hate it. Who will take a joke and who won't, who likes hugs and who doesn't, who prefers the mornings and who prefers the evenings. In the way that monastic life provides a series of repeating counters and practices, it isn't far different from Groundhog Day.

The monk, unlike Phil voluntarily chooses this life of repetitive practices and encounters in connection to the vow of stability. The vow of stability is a monk's promise to stay in the same place with the same people and engage in the same monastic practices for the rest of one's earthly life.

Like all the vows, stability is a means toward the end of conversion. Our Br. John Mark explains that stability aids conversion by providing the sure and solid context in which the human will may be conformed to the will of the loving God. Br. John Mark compares the human will to a steel rod which, in conversion, is bent into conformity with the divine will.

One cannot bend a rod without having something strong and solid to hold it in place while the bending is being done. This is what stability does. It provides the necessary strong and solid foundation that makes conversion, the bending of the rod, possible.

Stability means the monks stays put. He commits to repeat his day over and over again, in the same place with the same people doing the same things. And so the monk, in a very real way, is choosing voluntarily to do what Phil Connors did involuntarily, to stay in one place, to relive and re-encounter while being transformed.

Repetition can help us with this transformation, not merely by keeping us surefooted, but by supplying and resupplying opportunities to us for loving choices. For example, because I am in this repetitive life, each day I have the opportunity to be more attentive in liturgy and to be more open in prayer than I was earlier.

As each day I live and work alongside some characters who annoying me, I have the opportunity to "love my enemies," to set aside grievances, to practice patience, to exercise charity. Each day I have the opportunity to anticipate needs in the elderly monks, to clean things with more care than I did the day before, to listen with more receptivity to the lonely and the needy.

Because so many of our experiences and encounters repeat themselves, I am, each day and always, being given the opportunity to be humble where I was proud, to be chased where I was lustful, to be calm where I was angry, to be forgiving where I was unforgiving, to be assertive where I was a pushover. In this way, stability, by its repetition, can be accepted as a great gift that can be a tremendous help in the path to holiness.

The monk who perseveres can, like Phil Connors, be transformed. Like Phil we may come to this life with problems of self-centeredness, sarcasm, conceit, anger, despair or lust. But if we are open to the grace that comes with living out stability in a monastic community, we, like Phil, may be transformed into persons of charity.

In the last scene of "Groundhog Day," Phil has finally "gotten it right" and the morrow has finally come. On the morning of February 3, the now transformed Phil says to Rita with joyful single-mindedness, "Is there anything I can do for you today?" It is this novice monk's hope that he may be able to start his own day, each day, with the same happy singularity of purpose, saying to my brothers and to God, "Is there anything I can do for you today?"

Saint Meinrad Benedictine Oblate Newsletter
Winter 2008


Ash Wednesday: The Homily.

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2.1-17; 2 Cor 5.20b-6.10;Mt 6.1-6,16-21
6 February 2008
Church of the Holy Communion
Fr. Patrick S. Allen

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I remember one Christmas morning in my early twenties, that in the bounty of presents given me by my mother, was a book. It was business management guru Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I said, “Thanks, Mom,” and tried not to dwell on the implied commentary on my own habits and effectiveness – or, I should say, defectiveness. I did read the book, though, and I still remember one of Mr. Covey’s habits common to the highly effective: Begin with the end in mind.

That strikes me as good, sound advice, whether one is beginning a meal, a round of golf, or perhaps even a war.

“Begin with the end in mind.” Well, today we begin Lent, a season, as Fr. Clarke reminded us this morning, of intensified, joyful, expectant re-evaluation and reformation of the habits of our hearts, so that we may be more and more fit eternally to share on the light and life of the Blessed Trinity – Light and Life purchased for us on Good Friday and given to us on Easter Sunday.

And so on Ash Wednesday we begin our Holy Lent by bringing the end to mind – to publicly affirm a most obvious but most inconvenient truth: that each of us, should the Lord tarry so long, will die. And we do this in the most striking and unsubtle of ways. Ashes are imposed on our foreheads, and the priest says, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” No – nothing subtle about that. We are, all of us, terminal cases.

“Begin with the end in mind” is just a modern take on the ancient wisdom of the Church, entrusted as it is with the revelation of God. Do you remember Moses’ prayer? “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps 90).

So, this ritualized numbering of our days, this corporate memento mori – this Ash Wednesday – is not some guilt-inducing exercise in morbid introspection, but rather a coming to grips with reality, with the intention we will better order our lives in accord with that reality – which is to say, that we may live wisely. Ignoring reality can of course be great fun for a while. I remember one summer’s day when I was 16, attempting to drive my friend’s ’67 Volkswagon bug around a particularly sharp curve – one of those curves that gets sharper as you go around – at 65 mph. As I say, it was great fun for those few seconds to ignore reality, the laws of physics which govern the actions and trajectories of bodies in motion. But it wasn’t wise. This occurred to me as the car came to a rest upside down in a cow pasture.

The liturgy for Ash Wednesday brings us to that, again, most obvious but most inconvenient truth: “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9.27). That is the reality we must face, the reality toward which we must order our lives, a reality we ignore and deny at our own eternal peril.

But it is precisely here that it is not just helpful but absolutely essential to this day’s symbolism that our foreheads are marked not just with ashes as a sign of our own deaths, but with ashes in the form of a cross, a reminder of Another’s death – that Good Friday death which brings to us resurrection life. We can make a good beginning to this season of penitence because of the Cross’ promise. It frees us to be absolutely honest with God and (even!) our neighbor and truly to repent – which is nothing more than turn from the folly of sin and then to “apply our hearts unto wisdom,” to live in accord with the reality of God’s love. This Lent let us hold fast to the promise of the Cross where, as we have heard from St. Paul, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5.21).

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05 February 2008

Superbowl Lit.

Pretty funny fake-famous-author Superbowl predictions over at McSweeney's:

Cormac McCarthy:

Overhead, the sun is a wrathful god. It is made to ravage a dying land.

The boy stands in a dry gulch. He tilts his hat to the sting of the wind.

These men are patriots, says The Coach.

I reckon.

Do you know their soul?

Reckon not.

A hoarse laugh echoes through the heat. It singes the cragged escarpments of the red canyon.

You won't be the first, says The Coach.

I ain't scared of you.

Tengo otros cuerpos. Quiero el tuyo.

The Coach wears a bone around his neck. It is hung from dead sinew. Other bones he has ground by pestle and mortar. In the ancient caves he swallowed white dust.

I am here to erase you.

The boy squints at the arroyo bed. The earth is scorched in jagged lines.

It ain't no kind of life, he says.

Overhead, the sun is a wrathful god. It will bake the world.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Giants 6

Here they all are.
Via Terry Teachout.

Into The Great Silence: The Discussion.

This must be the 10th post in which I've encourage folks to see the film, Into Great Silence. Here's a piece of Matthew Lickona and Ernie Grimm's post-viewing discussion:
Ernie: I was watching this last night when I got up to get an orange. Eating oranges, or anything else for that mater, had never been a spiritual occurrence for me until last night. But after an hour and a half of that movie, I had a sense of how slicing and eating the orange, wiping the juice from my mouth, throwing away the peels, rinsing the bowl, and placing it in the strainer could be spiritualized. I've never enjoyed an orange quite so much. Do I sound like an idiot?

Matthew: No more than usual. But hearing that from you, and thinking about the scenes that no doubt inspired it, I find myself thinking of Thoreau, who went to the woods to live deliberately, so that when it came time for him to die, he would not find that he had not lived. The monks are doing that in spades. They have, as the film reminds us again and again, taken Christ to heart when He said, "Unless you give up everything, you cannot be my disciple." But in giving up everything, they have gained a remarkable sense of meaning. It shows when they discuss handwashing. "It wouldn't be a big deal to get rid of something useless," says one. "Our entire life is symbols," answers another. "The entire liturgy and every ceremonial are symbols. If you abolish the symbols, then you tear down the walls of your own house." They have made of their lives a symbol -- that is, they have given the whole of their life a meaning. They are, as the old monk says, entirely at God's disposal -- listening for him, waiting on him. The planes pass by overhead, and they look ridiculous by comparison.
Here's the whole thing, via Lickona's blog Godsbody.
Here's the film trailer.

Mine, Too.

01 February 2008

You Can Say That Again.

When marginality gets down and dirty with the hyper-alterity of a trans-gendered discourse that (re)figures the identity of the hegemonic Other, it turns out that nobody is listening.
R.R. Reno, discussing the secret history (wink, wink) behind the neo-con engineered marginalization of the academy in public discourse