Saturday, July 19, 2014

Caring for the Weeds

Included in a collection of essays entitled A Maryknoll Reflection on the Liturgical Year is this story from Father Ken Tesing, a Maryknoll priest who spent decades serving in East Africa:
I came back to the United States from my mission in Tanzania, and I was visiting my brother and his family at their farm. As farmers always do, we went out to look at the fields and crops. My brother asked me, “Look, do you recognize those weeds?” I replied, “No, I don’t think I have ever seen them before; how did they get into your fields?” He said, “Some years ago herbicides were developed; the weeds and grasses we struggled with in the crops when we were just growing up have all been eliminated. All these seeds were just lying dormant in the ground; they could not compete earlier with the dominant weeds and now they have sprouted and come forth.” We talked about this.
My brother said farming is like life; there will always be challenges, always be differences. We need to be patient and tolerant, to recognize the problems, the evil amid the good, and find ways to work with it and around it.

This simple, practical explanation by an observant farmer is ultimately what Jesus’ parable of the “Wheat and the Weeds” is about: it is a lesson in acceptance, humility, and mercy.

This particular parable, which only appears in the Gospel of Matthew (although an abbreviated version appears in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas), can be troubling, especially when placed against other, better known parts of Scripture. In essence, Jesus tells the story of a farmer whose crop of wheat is attacked by an enemy who sows the seeds of weeds along with the grains of wheat. Once this act of violence was done, there was no going back. The wheat and the weeds had to be allowed to grow up together. It would only be at the time of the harvest that the separation would finally take place. The weeds would be burned up.

In many ways, the language and imagery of this parable lead to many questions (and it is worth reading the entire text), but they also provide helpful directions toward finding answers. This parable isn’t concerned with backstory or trying to understand the presence of the destructive weeds. It focuses on the response of the landowner. And so, when the slaves suggest uprooting the weeds, the landowner refuses: pulling up the weeds might uproot the wheat.

To most of us, this might seem like a reckless decision. After all, won’t the weeds be absorbing valuable nutrients and water from the soil—the very resources needed to make the wheat flourish? Plus, how will the wheat and weeds be separated at harvest time? But, these aren’t Jesus’ concerns. Jesus is teaching an important lesson about God’s mercy and how mercy is at work in day-to-day life.

A 19th century etching depicting the
Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds ("Tares")

In Jesus’ parable, there is a distinct difference between the wheat and the weeds, but to get the full impact of the picture that Matthew the Evangelist is painting, we have to take a look at the word that is used for the “weeds.” The word used here is zizania (ζιζανια) which is sometimes translated as "tares" or "darnel." Rather than just being a general word for "weed," this is a specific plant  (ryegrass) whose scientific name is lolium temulentum. What makes this detail so important to the story is that zizania looks like wheat as it is beginning to grow and it is only when it is nearly mature that you can tell the difference.
Jesus makes it clear that the determination as to what is zizania and what is wheat will only be made at the time of the harvest (the eschaton), when the reapers (whom Jesus says are the angels), will gather up the wheat and the weeds. The point of all of this, however, is not some sort of predestinationism with some people being born evil and others being born righteous. Instead, Jesus is trying to illustrate that the Church is made up of a mixture of sinners and saints. And, as Professor John W. Martens observes, “It is impossible to know who represents the wheat and who represents the weeds, and human attempts to judge someone a ‘weed’ in advance of God’s judgment are bound to fail because of the partial nature of our knowledge and decisions.”

In this parable, we are being cautioned against judging those around us. (After all, each of us is a “mixed field” of good and bad characteristics and habits with our own particular sins.) But we also have to be careful that we don’t take the “wheat” and “weeds” language too far. After all, Jesus is using a metaphor here and we have to let the metaphor be just a metaphor. We are not plants. We are capable of much, much more.

Saint Augustine brings this point home when, in a sermon on this passage, he explained:
Consider what we choose to be in his field; consider what sort of people we are found to be at the harvest. The field, you see, which is the world, is the Church spread throughout the world. Let those who are wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds change themselves into wheat. This, you see, is the difference between people and real ears of wheat and real weeds, because with those things growing in a field whatever is wheat is wheat, and whatever are weeds are weeds. But in the Lord’s field, which is the Church, wheat used to be grain sometimes changes into weeds, and what used to be weeds sometimes changes into grain; and nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.
And so, we are left with mercy and a spirit of patience and acceptance of those around us. But mercy is a difficult topic in our overly politicized times. Many see mercy (and compassion) as letting someone “off the hook.” We find this mentality at work in the debates surrounding immigration reform, government assistance for low-income families, the mentally ill, addicts, and many others who might not comfortably fit our theological, political, and economic worldview.

To gain a fuller understanding of what true mercy—God’s mercy—is really like, we can read the First Reading for this Sunday: “Though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, / and with much lenience you govern us; / for power, whenever you will, attends you. / And you taught your people by these deeds, / that those who are just must be kind; / and you gave your children good ground for hope / that you would permit repentance for their sins (Wisdom 12:16-19). God’s majesty and power are most especially manifest in leniency, clemency, and kindness, and we see this embodied in Jesus’ own willingness to offer forgiveness and acceptance.

In our crazy, mixed-up world of wheat and weeds, none of us has the authority or even the luxury to judge another—that right and power are reserved to God alone. After all, as Scripture reminds us, “I, the Lord, test the mind / and search the heart, / to give to all according to their ways, / according to the fruit of their doings” (Jeremiah 17:10).

Who are we to accuse anybody?  
It is possible that we see them do something we think is not right, but we do not know why they are doing it.
Jesus encourages us not to judge anyone.
Maybe we are the ones responsible for others doing things we think are not right.
Let us not forget that we are dealing our brothers and sisters. That leper, that sick person, that drunk, are all our brothers and sisters. They, too, have been created by a greater Love.
This is something we should never forget.
That sick person, that alcoholic, that thief, are my brothers and sisters.
It is possible that they find themselves abandoned and on the street because no one gave them love and understanding. You and I could be in their place if we had not received love and understanding from other human beings.
I will never forget the alcoholic man who told me his story. He was a man who had surrendered to alcohol to forget the fact that no one loved him.
Before we judge… we have the duty to look inside ourselves.

Mercy is God’s gift to us, providing us with that time and space which allows for conversion and renewal so we can experience reconciliation, healing, and growth. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a reminder that each of us is called to extend mercy to those around us and to recognize that we, ourselves, are in need of mercy. We cannot judge and we cannot put our politics, ideologies, and agendas before the needs of our brothers and sisters who, regardless of their race, language, religion, orientation, education, or health, are just as deserving of love, care, and understanding as we believe ourselves to be.

A Prayer for a Productive Faith +
O Lord,
increase my faith
and let it bear fruit in my life.
Let it bind me fast to other Christians
in the common certitude
that our Master is the God-Man
who gave his life for all.
Let me listen with faith
to the divine Word that challenges me.

Help me to strive wholeheartedly
under the promptings of faith
in the building of a world ruled by love.
Enable me to walk in faith
toward the indescribable future
that you promised
to all who possess a productive faith in you. Amen.
(taken from The New St. Joseph People’s Prayer Book, 573)  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Praying with Our Lady of the Hermitage

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is honored by many titles and in countless places by Christians around the world. These various names of Mary often tell us something about her role in the story of salvation, such as “Mother of God,” “Cause of our Joy,” and “Ark of the Covenant.” Other titles of Mary tell us something of the unique role she plays in the life of the Church and of individual Christians: “Comforter of the Afflicted,” “Help of Christians,” “Mother of Good Counsel,” and “Queen of All Saints.” Finally, there are those titles of Mary that are associated with specific places like Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, or La Salette. Each of these titles, in its own way, expresses a faith and devotion that was first voiced by the woman who cried out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you” (Luke 11:27).
I have three titles of Mary that are especially meaningful for me and seem to capture my own devotion to the Mother of God. They are “Mother of Sorrows,” “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” and “Our Lady of Einsiedeln.” This last title (meaning “Our Lady of the Hermitage”) comes from the historical Benedictine Abbey of Maria Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Swiss monks brought devotion to Our Lady of Einsiedeln to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century and, from their first foundation in southern Indiana, Benedictine monks and nuns carried this unique name of Mary across the United States and into parts of Latin and South America.
"Our Lady of the Hermitage" in the
Abbey of Maria Einsiedeln

While in many places Mary is honored under her title of “Our Lady of Mt. Carmel,” each July 16, these same monks, nuns, and sisters, along with those associated with their communities, celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Einsiedeln.  

Thinking about this particular feast and title of Our Lady, I’m always struck by the word “hermitage.” The hermitage in question is that of the ninth century monk and martyr, Meinrad, who lived the final years of his life in Switzerland’s black forest, spending his days in prayer and offering hospitality to travelers who made their way to his small cabin. A generation after his death, a new monastery was built on the site of his hermitage and this was the foundation that became the Abbey of Einsiedeln. The Gothic statue venerated there dates from sometime around the fourteenth century and seems to have replaced a much older image that is believed to have been destroyed in a fire.  

A hermitage is a place of retreat and prayer and I believe that honoring Mary under the title of “Our Lady of the Hermitage” is about much, much more than honoring the history of a particular image or the history of a family of Benedictines. For me, this title of Mary has always been a reminder that Mary was a woman of prayer. And, as a woman of prayer, she is a model for each of us who follow her Son.

In two places in Luke’s Gospel we are told that Mary pondered what was happening in her life and the life of her Son “in her heart.” The first is immediately following Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, with the accompanying singing angels and visiting shepherds (2:19) and the other is after Mary and Joseph find the lost twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem (he had been missing for three days): “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51). Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), reflecting on these things, wrote:
Mary, who had been troubled by the sight of the angel, now remains calm before the succession of such miracles as the pregnancy of the barren woman [i.e. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist], motherhood in virginity, speech from a mute [i.e. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 1)], the adoration of the Magi, the expectation of Simeon, and the witness of the stars. And, the Gospel says, “She kept all these things in her heart.” Even though she was the Mother of the Lord, she wanted to learn his precepts. She, who had given birth to God, desired to know God still better.”—from De virginibus, 2

While Mary enjoyed a relationship with Christ that no other human person can have—that of a mother—she felt wonder and awe in the face of the great events to which she had agreed to play a part. We can imagine that the Mary of Holy Saturday, mourning the death of her crucified Son, would have also looked into her heart to try to make sense of everything that had occurred. This was the same heart that Simeon had promised would be pierced many years earlier when she and Joseph had presented Jesus in the Temple—a heart that had known the joys of motherhood and that was now pierced with the sword of grief.  

Finally, we have Mary as she is presented in the Acts of the Apostles, gathered with Jesus’ closest friends and followers, waiting and praying in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:14). Waiting, again, for a miraculous birth—but not the birth of a child, rather, the birth of the Church. 

Mary was a woman of expectation, who watched and waited. But, she was also a woman of prayer. And her way of praying teaches us something about how we might pray. 

It is significant that St. Luke tells us of Mary turning to prayer in times of great change, challenge, and possibility. She was sustained by the public, liturgical prayer of her Jewish faith, but beyond that, we are also given glimpses into Mary’s faith through her openness to what God was asking of her and her moments of prayer, themselves. 

I’ve been reflecting lately on the question of why so many Christians seem to be suspicious of piety or anything that seems too devotional. Sadly, it seems, this aversion extends to prayer.

Perhaps, this is because of a misunderstanding of what the true purpose of prayer is—ultimately enriching our relationship with God. Too often, prayer is seen as something rote and simplistic. Many, including clergy and religious I know (both Catholic and Protestant), prefer to use techniques like centering prayer or breathing exercises, if they pray at all. And, while these are good and valuable forms of prayer, I find myself wondering how enriching they are, particularly as it comes to fostering a union with God and, like Mary, seeking to discern how God is at work in the challenges of life, including illness, family issues, ministerial obligations, and mortality. It seems that by not being willing to humble ourselves in prayer, we are denying the possibility and power of expanding our unique relationship with the God who loves us and we fail to imitate the humility and obedience of Jesus, himself.  

Prayer is difficult and requires discipline. Whether it is lectio divina (spiritual reading), Eucharistic devotions, fostering a liturgical spirituality, or simply setting aside ten or fifteen minutes each day to prayerfully reflect on what is happening in your life in conversation with God, prayer takes commitment. In my own life, I’ve found that it is unnecessarily difficult if it only happens periodically and really it isn’t as helpful if I only do it when things are really bad or really good. 

So, today, while we remember Mary, the woman of prayer, we are given another reminder of the centrality of prayer. All of us have challenges and needs to present to God, both our own and others, and we also have countless things for which we should be grateful. These are the fodder of prayer. And prayer is worth the effort. Prayer is essential for a full and fruitful life of discipleship.

May Our Lady of the Hermitage inspire each of us to seek out a place of quiet and peace each day to lift our hearts and minds to God in humble, grateful prayer.

A Prayer in honor of Our Lady of Einsiedeln +
O God, who gave the Holy Spirit to your Apostles
as they prayed with Mary the Mother of Jesus,
grant that through her intercession
we may faithfully serve your majesty
and extend, by word and example,
the glory of your name.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal, Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary- D: Our Lady, Queen of Apostles)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Preparing the Soil

Once upon a time, a teacher told a story. It simply began: “A sower went out to sow.” It’s a story that has come down to us largely unchanged from the way it was first told. And it is a story that we know well.

Unfortunately, it seems that many of the stories told by Jesus (the “Parables”) have lost their power to surprise and inspire us. There seems to be two reasons for this. The first is that they often include images and anecdotes from everyday life that are significantly unrelated from most of our day-to-day lives. After all, how many of us have any first-hand experience with sowing a field and understand what goes into cultivating a fruitful harvest. The second reason why these stories have lost their impact is that we know them too well. With the stories of the “Prodigal Son” and the “Good Samaritan,” the parable of the “Sower and the Seed” is among the best-known of these stories of Jesus. 

In Saint Matthew’s account of the parable of the sower (13:1-9, 18-23), we have Jesus telling a story of a man who went out to sow seeds. As he scattered the seed, some fell on a path, others fell onto rocky ground with little soil, and some seed fell among thorns and weeds. But some of the seed fell on rich, fertile soil and produced an abundant harvest. Jesus himself goes on to explain the meaning of the parable. It all seems fairly clear. The seed is God’s Word and the different kinds of soil represent the hearer’s ability to receive the Word and allow it to grow and flourish in our hearts. The harvest could be said to be our good works and faith, which are given for the nourishment of the world.  

It all seems so simple. And, in fact, it is.  

But as I read this parable alongside the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:10-11), two points of reflection came to me.  

Isaiah reminds us that God speaks to us, intent that “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” So, the gifts of Providence aren’t given for our own consolation and enlightenment, they are given for a purpose: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth.” The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that, “the Word of God is alive and active” (4:12). 

God scatters the seed whether we’re ready, paying attention, or willing to receive the seed at all. This is part of God’s gracious self-giving. God is always speaking to us and the seed is always being sown. 
"The Sower" by Vincent Van Gogh
And so, this leads to the second point. We have a responsibility to prepare the soil and cultivate a rich harvest.

I’ve often used this parable as a sort of “examination of conscience,” trying to figure out my heart-soil. Am I rocky and shallow? Am I distracted with the weeds of “things” and other pointless distractions and cares? But if we stop there, we are missing the call that is included in this story—Jesus is inviting us to be sure to prepare the soil and to care for what God has planted within us. Dirt-packed paths can be broken up and the soil enriched, rocks and debris can be removed, and thorns and weeds can be torn out, leaving behind fertile space for growing. We have a part to play in this, other than simply being receptive.  

In many ways, I think this parable summarizes what Ordinary Time is all about. This is the season of the year in which we are given time and space to “farm” our hearts and souls to make the most of what we receive in the other seasons of the year. We have the feasts of saints and the great events of Jesus’ life to inspire us and invigorate us as we do this hard work of becoming better disciples of Jesus. Entering these mysteries is key and this work can only be done through prayer, discernment, and works of care and compassion that take us outside of ourselves and our own places of comfort. This is the ordinary time when we are being called to extraordinary work.

A Prayer for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God,
who show the light of your truth
to those who go astray,
so that they may return to the right path,
give all who for the faith they profess
are accounted Christians
the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ
and to strive after all that does it honor.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
(Taken from the Roman Missal)