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)

 

 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Yoke of Woman Wisdom

In the opening verse of Sirach, we read, “All wisdom is from the Lord / and remains with him forever.” Praise of Wisdom is echoed in other places in the Old Testament, including Proverbs, Wisdom, Baruch, and Ecclesiastes and certain psalms. Continuing its praise of Wisdom, however, Sirach continues: “Before all other things wisdom was created; and prudent understanding from eternity. The root of wisdom—to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties—who knows them? There is but one, wise and truly awesome, seated upon his throne—the Lord. It is he who created her, saw her and measured her. Poured her forth upon all his works, upon every living thing, according to his bounty, lavished her upon those who love him” (1:4-10).

The passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we heard on the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Matthew 11:25-30), comes in a section in which Jesus can be said to take on the persona of the Woman Wisdom, “speaking with the words and images attributed to her in Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch” (Barbara Reid, O.P., in Abiding Word, Year A, [Liturgical Press, 2013]).

Scripture scholars note that in the verses preceding today’s reading, the words and witness of both Jesus and John the Baptist have been rejected by the religious leaders, just as “Lady Wisdom” was rejected by those who were thought to be wise (cf. Sir 15:7-8; Wis 10:3; Bar 3:12). At the end of this section, Jesus, identifying with Wisdom incarnate, declares, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:39). And so, as Barbara Reid notes, “Today’s gospel is the final section of this chapter, where Jesus, like Woman Wisdom, is a sage who reveals mysteries, interprets Torah, and calls disciples.”

Personally, I have always found this tradition of identifying Jesus with Woman Wisdom of the Old Testament striking. To our Western minds, this can be a challenging way of understanding Jesus, especially since it requires us to use feminine language and imagery in a way that many find unsettling. In the Eastern Church, however, the mystical tradition has been much more open to this Woman Wisdom, sometimes understood as the divine Logos (the Word) who became incarnate in Jesus (cf. John 1:1-5, 14).


A contemporary icon of Holy Wisdom
based upon the traditional Deisis icon with Christ/Holy Wisdom
enthroned in glory with Mary and St. John the Baptist

This belief has even been expressed in certain icons of Holy Wisdom (pictured above), in which a female Wisdom (the Logos) is represented in direct connection with the figure of Jesus placed in close proximity to her. [We might also remember that the great church of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople was the religious center of the Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years.]

In the Western tradition of prayer and mysticism, only a few have embraced this facet of the Logos, most notably St. Hildegard of Bingen, Benedictine abbess and Doctor of the Church, and England’s Julian of Norwich (although early writers like St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory Nazianzen used “Wisdom” as a title of Christ).

Jesus, speaking as Wisdom (cf. 51:26), invites us, his disciples, to take up his yoke—his teachings. Many will hear this invitation to “Come” and “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” as a promise of comfort and consolation. After all, he does say, “you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” But, there’s more going on here than just a promise that, through Jesus, we will find ease and contentment. While that is certainly a hope and promise contained in this passage, I think we also have to look at the passage from the Prophet Zechariah that we hear today: “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek… he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea” (9:9-10).

When Jesus is inviting us to take up his yoke, he is repeating his call for us to commit ourselves to a life of discipleship—in this case, he uses an image that very literally invites us to join ourselves to him in carrying out his mission. This text is a call to join in the work of peace and prophecy that is the duty of our King to whom “all things have been handed over by [the] Father.” The consolation we receive is that, like two animals joined by a yoke, we do not have to do this work alone—we have the strength of the Other to rely on as we live out our life of service. In many ways, this life of service is the great privilege we Christians have. Through Baptism, we are given the grace to actually share in the work of Jesus, not as servants, but as coworkers in the world, working to build up the Kingdom of God. Reverend Steve Pankey, an Episcopal priest and blogger, says it this way: “The yoke of Christ isn’t easy. In fact, it is impossible to carry on our own. However, the promise of Jesus is sure, the yoke is made easy by God’s grace-filled gift of the Holy Spirit.”

We can get a broader sense of what this yoke means when we read about another yoke in the Old Testament—the yoke of Woman Wisdom found in Sirach (6:23-33). This imagery becomes especially meaningful for us, today, when we understand that this Wisdom is the Christ who is speaking to us in the Gospel:
Listen, my child, and take my advice; do not refuse my council. Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck under her yoke. Bend your shoulders and carry her and do not be irked at her bonds.
With all your soul draw close to her; and with all your strength keep her ways. Inquire and search, seek and find; when you get hold of her, do not let her go. Thus at last you will find rest in her, and she will become your joy.
Her fetters will be a place of strength; her snare, a robe of spun gold. Her yoke will be a gold ornament; her bonds, a purple cord. You will wear her as a robe of glory, and bear her as a splendid crown.
If you wish, my son, you can be wise; if you apply yourself, you can be shrewd. If you are willing to listen, you can learn; if you pay attention, you can be instructed.

And so, how do we receive the gift of Wisdom? Jesus gives us the answer: we must be like little children (cf. Matthew 18:3). We adult followers of Jesus have to “become like children” in order to enter the Kingdom.

I think this teaching is one of the most important lessons we can learn about discipleship. While the idea that we have to be like children in order to be true disciples (a word which actually comes from the Latin word discipulus, meaning “student”) may seem ridiculous, it’s what Jesus is asking. Children are free from the sophistications, pretensions, prejudices, and illusions that we so willing make a part of our adult lives. Children are trusting and vulnerable, reliant and weak, and they depend on those with power to protect them and provide for them. As John W. Martens observes, “such reliance opens children to the revelation from the Son. Jesus’ way is revealed to infants because the ‘little ones’ model the necessary trust, dependence, and reliance on God the Father that the Son has revealed to them.” It is this reliance that we adult disciples have to learn if we are to truly follow Jesus—after all, he offers to share the burden of the Kingdom’s yoke with us.

Wisdom is available to all, whether we are young or old, rich or poor, strong or frail, intelligent or lacking in intelligence. Wisdom invites everyone to listen and follow and this invitation isn’t dependent on anything other than an open, receptive heart.

As we continue to live out our call to faithful discipleship, which includes engaging the many challenges facing our families, our faith communities, and our nation and the world, let us continue to think of the children who, sitting in the lap of Woman Wisdom-Jesus, hear the Word whispered in their ears. Let us turn off the sound bites and seek a place of stillness so that we can hear the Word speaking in and to us. If we can do this, we will find a way, together, carrying our common yoke, to do the work of the One who shares our burden.
 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Behind the Scenes with Saint Silas

When I made my first vows as a Benedictine monk in 2004, I was very excited about the prospect of receiving a new (religious) name. The custom of the community of which I was a member is that the soon-to-be professed monk submits three preferred names to the abbot. The abbot, as head of the community, would then either pick one of the three names or select one of his own choosing.

I spent weeks researching names. The only real considerations were that it had to be the name of a saint or beati and that there couldn’t be anyone else in the community with that name. In a community of more than 100 members, options were limited pretty quickly. But, I know a lot of saints and wasn’t put off by the prospect of having a name that was a bit out of the ordinary.  

And so, I settled on my three choices: Leander, Silas, and Nicholas. Although the community had had Leanders and Nicholases in the past, Silas would be a first. And, after a few days of waiting, Silas was the name I received, leading one grumpy confrere to exclaim, “Silas! That’s unheard of!” And now, for more than 10 years, this has been my name. When I chose to leave religious life, I had the option of returning to my baptismal name, but the name Silas had become an inseparable part of who I am. I am grateful to have received Silas, the companion of Paul, as a new patron and role model.  

There isn’t much known about Silas (whose feast is celebrated on July 13). What we do know comes from the New Testament, most especially the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts tell us that Silas was an esteemed member of the Christian community in Jerusalem. In the midst of the debate over the status of Gentile converts to the Faith, the Jewish-Christian leaders, led by Peter and James, chose Silas and Judas-Barsabbas to take a letter to the Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia and “confirm by word of mouth what we have written in this letter.” When they arrived in Antioch, Judas and Silas, “being themselves prophets, spoke for a long time, encouraging and strengthening the brothers” They spent some time there and then returned to Jerusalem (Acts 15:22-34). One New Testament scholar described Silas as “a Jewish Christian in good standing in the leadership of the Jerusalem church… an approved representative… open to the gentile mission… and effective in a gentile church” (quoted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints [1999 edition]). 

Later, after Paul and Barnabas parted ways, Paul chose Silas to accompany him on what we now know as his “Second Missionary Journey” (Acts 15:40). In Philippi, Paul and Silas were charged with causing a disturbance, flogged, and imprisoned. During the night, they were freed from prison by an earthquake. After baptizing their jailer and his family, they fled to Beroea and Paul eventually made his way to Athens; Silas and Timothy later joined him in Corinth (Acts 17:13-15; 8:5). Other than references to Silas (under his Roman name, Silvanus) in Paul’s First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1) and the Second Letter to the Corinthians (1:19), along with the First Letter of Peter, we don’t hear more about Silas in Scripture. Various traditions from the Early Church claim that he died in Macedonia after serving as bishop of Corinth. 
 

Saint Silas by Br. Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
[Used with permission. Please do not copy this image.]

Over the last decade, I have often thought about this man whose name I was given. And I’m very proud. I’ve also learned a lot over the years about ministry and about the important role that nearly all of us play in the life of the Church: working behind the scenes. Very few of us are called to ordination or the religious life, and even for those of us who are, only a small number will ever really hold any far-reaching authority. But, whatever our role, Pope Francis has reminded all of us, more than once, that none of what we do can be about our own egos, agenda, or influence—if we aren’t living for the sake of the Kingdom, then we aren’t truly ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

This work behind the scenes doesn’t mean that the gifts, resources, perspectives, and insights we have aren’t important. Quite the opposite is true—they are essential. The Church can really only be healthy when each member does their part and gives their best. In my own experience, the greatest damage is done (to individuals and the entire Church) when people are made to feel that they have nothing to contribute or that their gifts don’t matter. We have to take Saint Paul at his word: "There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all for them in everyone" (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).  

There is so much potential for good in this teaching—good for parishes and religious communities and for the Universal Church. How open are our leaders to the individual gifts and charisms of those entrusted to their care? How open are we to the visions and vocations of our brothers and sisters? 

I think we are currently seeing a massive failure on the part of the Church (in both leadership and individual members) in the vitriolic debates that are so often fodder for the media and for those who do not share our faith. I fear that we Christians--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant--are succeeding in making ourselves ridiculous by our partisanship, our politicized ideologies and theologies, and our unwillingness to find new ways of collaborating with one another. Most recently, we see this being played out in the debates surrounding the Supreme Court’s decisions about Hobby Lobby and the HHS Mandate. Rather than trying to find new ways to work for justice, to dialogue about what constitutes honest-to-God healthcare and reproductive rights, and a truly Christian pro-life stance (with all that implies, including preferential options for the poor, universal distribution of goods, immigration reform, and the death penalty), we are failing to help build up God's Kingdom and risking further irrelevance. I believe that the same can be said of the fights over marriage equality and our understanding of what constitutes marriage theologically, culturally, and politically. The legislation of guns, the care of the mentally ill, and immigrant reform cannot be omitted from what seems to be an ever-growing list of divisive issues that are the responsibility of every Christian and every person of good will.  

As unlikely as it may seem to some people, we can look to a reflection on Silas that Pope Benedict XVI (offered during the General Audience on January 31, 2007) for a bit of guidance. Mentioning Silas/Silvanus’ work with Paul and Timothy in Corinth, the now-Pope Emeritus continued:  
In the Second Letter that Paul addressed to that church, he spoke of “Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I” (2 Cor 1:19). This explains how he came to be the joint author, together with Paul and Timothy of the two Letters to the Thessalonians.
Paul does not act as a “soloist,” on his own, but together with these collaborators in the “we” of the Church. [The] “I” of Paul is not an isolated “I” but an “I” in the “we” of the Church, in the “we” of the apostolic faith… [Silas] is also mentioned in the First Letter of Peter, in which we read: “I have written [briefly] to you… by Silvanus, a faithful brother” (1 Pet 5:12). Thus, we also see the communion of the Apostles. Silvanus serves Paul and he serves Peter, because the Church is one and the missionary proclamation is one.

Ultimately, in a world of greys, the only way I believe that we Christians can move forward and effect positive change is to stop accepting sound bites as truth, to acknowledge that nothing is (or has ever been) black and white, and to foster the spirit of communion embodied by Silas and Peter and Paul and those first leaders of the Church. While the most cursory reading of Acts and the Letters of the New Testament reveal that even though  they faltered and fought, they found ways of reconciliation and collaboration that we would do well to seek out in our own time. Each of us should pray for the grace of what Johann Baptist Metz called "mysticism of the eyes"--a mysticism that "especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering, and--convenient or not--pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings" (from A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity).

Whatever side of the "aisle" we might associate ourselves with, or whatever flavor of Christianity we might espouse (e.g. evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, conservative, pacifist, etc.), we have to recognize that the "inconvenient issues" are not ideologies, they are human beings. As Deirdre Cornell said in her book, Jesus Was a Migrant, "Surely a god who migrated from heaven to be born of a refugee family--to belong to a people painfully and intimately versed in Exodus and exile journey--surely this God would ask us to look for his presence among migrants. Jesus was a migrant. How could migrants not matter?" But, to extend her question, how could victims of abuse and human trafficking, exploited workers, abandoned children and the elderly, addicts, the mentally ill, widows, veterans, vulnerable adults, GLBT individuals, and the poor not matter? They certainly matter more than our politics. They matter because Jesus is most especially present in those who are on the margins of society and our churches.

As both ordained and “behind the scenes” ministers, like Silas, we have to ask ourselves if we’re invested and if we’re contributing to a spirit of communion and committed to moving forward together. If not, can we really say that we are proclaiming—much less, living—the Gospel?

While our gifts and even our visions might vary, it is the Spirit of God that guides us, but only if we are humble and docile enough to listen to and engage the Spirit speaking to us in our dialogue with our civic and spiritual leaders, in the broad Tradition of the Church, and in the mandates of Scripture.

May Saint Silas and all those countless, behind-the-scenes saints guide us as we discern how to best use our individual gifts for the good of our communities and how we can move forward as a truly catholic Church.



A prayer in honor of Saint Silas +
Just and mercificul God, in every generation you raise up prophets, teachers, and witnesses to summon the world to honor and praise your holy Name: We thank you for sending Silas, whose gifts built up your Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Grant that we too may be living stones built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[Text adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. 
The commemoration of Saint Silas is celebrated on July 13 in the Roman Catholic Church and on the Syriac and Malankara calendars, on January 26 in the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church (with Timothy and Titus), on February 10 in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and on July 30 by Eastern Orthodox Christians.]