Can I love the Church?

“Can I still love the Church?” I asked myself recently. Having been part of the Church for many years as priest and monk, the honeymoon of the first years is over. I have seen a lot, both good and bad. It probably is similar to any relationship. There are things in the Church I love and things I really do not. There are things that bother me and others that sustain me. There is, over and over again, the moment to forgive and the joy to be forgiven.

However, compared to the first fresh view of the Church with the dreams and vision I had for her; the love, beauty, justice, and protection I expected from her; and after many years and experiences, one can feel disillusioned. I see the need for change. I suffer from her weaknesses, from her habitual problems, in parts from her dysfunctionality. I suffer mostly from the potential for evangelization and charity that she is missing out on. Knowing well that I myself am weak, I wonder: Can I still love the Church?

One could answer with Saint Benedict: love the brothers/sisters – hate the failure. In that sense: Yes, it is possible to love the Church by loving the brothers and sisters. However, what if I cannot stand some of them anymore? What if I have a hard time to love all the Church’s brothers and sisters? Pondering in prayer this question, it came to me: yes, I can still love the Church because I love Christ, because the Church is the body of Christ. It is Christ whom we love in the brothers and sisters. Not their sins certainly, but Christ in them. Christ who is present in them. Christ who constantly looks out for the good in them. Who has promised to stay with us. We love the Church because we love Christ. That is what keeps us.

Perhaps we must go even deeper: Why do we love Christ? It is because he loves us. Because he loved us first. It is his constant loving gaze that draws us in. It is his profound unconditional love and respect for us that binds us. It is his trust in us that makes us follow him.

I found the answer: our love to the Church is a response to Christ’s love for us, for me.

Dear Lord, you promised to be with us always, until the end of the age. We trust your promise. Do not leave us, especially, when we are in difficult times. Your love for us is like a “first love”. It never withers. Continue to love us, Lord, and continue to bless your Church.

Good and meek eyes

We have been in quarantine for four weeks already in our monastery at Sant’Anselmo. The new situation is challenging for us, like for everybody during the Corona pandemic. However, all monks are still healthy, and that makes us grateful and humble.

Every day I learn something new. For example, I noticed that in a crisis like this things surface that we can hide in normal times. Usually, there are many ways of avoiding in a community. Now this is no longer possible. We are – one could say – naked. On one hand, new parts of us appear–new creativity, spontaneity, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to selfless giving and support. On the other hand, our weaknesses that we do not want others to see, lie bare. I believe every relationship has secrets and that does not destroy it. Maybe in contrary. Now, however, we are together continuously, and are left uncovered. We see ourselves as we are, more aware of our bad habits–emotions erupt, perhaps from ancient tensions that were latent, but with which we could deal. In a situation of stress, it becomes more difficult.

What are the remedies? It helps me to remind myself that God is looking at us with his good and mild eyes. This is what I am also supposed to do: be good with myself, good and patient and meek. But also, be good and patient with my neighbors–To not judge them, to be merciful with them, to forgive them for how they are.

In paradise, we were naked in God’s eyes, but we did not notice it. When we let us be looked at by him, in these days, we can discover a new and good way to treat each other.

Lord, look at me. If I don’t like to see myself, look at me. If I don’t like to see the others, look at them. Your heart is so much bigger than ours. Cleanse me during this time, make my heart wider, my eyes milder and my faith deeper. Forgive me as I forgive my neighbors.

Silent Cry

It is hard to suffer. It is harder when we cannot express our suffering, when the suffering is so strong that we have not even the strength to cry. I learned in emergency assistance courses that if you come to the scene of an accident, you should not necessarily turn first to those who cry the loudest. You should look for the people who don’t cry anymore. They might need your help the most.

During the period in which we meditate the passion of Christ, I feel encouraged to pray for all who silently suffer. Because Christ experienced the same, when he stood before Pontius Pilate, when he was flagellated, when he was mocked – so much so that the evangelist Luke interpreted the situation with the prophet Isaiah:

“Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.” (Acts 8:32; Isaiah 53:7)

What could he have said? The plot was made. Only his friends could see his suffering. It touches my heart that Jesus could not say anything. How much he must have suffered! All the ignorance and injustice as an “answer” to his healing and consoling! Sometimes the silent cry is the loudest. Days before, he still wept over Jerusalem – now he does not even weep.

No matter if our suffering is caused by others or self-inflicted, or if we just don’t know the cause at all, not being able to express our suffering is the worst. Contemplating the passion of Christ gives us consolation. When Jesus is entering Jerusalem together with his disciples, the Pharisees want him to rebuke and silence them. Jesus replied to the Pharisees:  “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” Jesus encourages us to cry out our suffering. I don’t have to hold back. He invites me to do it in front of him, or in front of a good friend. Jesus hears me. He even hears the silent cry. He sees me. He even sees the smallest tear. And he will answer me.

Lord, I ask you to watch over those who don’t cry anymore, who suffer so deeply that they cannot even cry. And I ask for myself that you help me to express myself, my sufferings and my concerns without fear, with courage, and with hope.

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The Armor of Light

A friend recently shared with me the difficulties he has at work—toxic atmosphere, disrespect of rules, bullying, and filthy relationships—and he was wondering how to deal with it. As we were talking, St. Paul came to mind with his expression “armor of light” (Rom 13:12). In the letter to the Ephesians, he explains:

“Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. (…) So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (6:10-17)

 When we think of weapons, we usually don’t think of truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, and the word of God. What different kind of weapons! If we fight with the weapons of darkness, the situation will continue to be dark. Wounds on all sides will increase; grief and wish for revenge will grow. Instead, if we fight back with the weapons of light, light will come onto the scene. We are not supposed to not defend ourselves, because it is evil that we encounter. The question is how we defend ourselves.

“Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Rom 13:12

 This is the other way to respond to difficult situations, a way that really helps us to exit the spiral of negativity and violence. Faith, truth, and the word of God is what make us truly strong. This is what protects us. Faith is powerful.

Lord, let me learn to use the weapons of light. I yearn for light and peace. Let me stick with my faith, especially in difficult situations. Let me meditate your word so as to be ready to respond. Let me not be afraid to follow the truth. Let me pursue righteousness. And let me believe that you are the salvation, that you have saved us, that you have already won the battle! On earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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If You Can!

You seldom see Jesus emotional. There might be some projection on my part when I read this story, however, one little sentence caught my attention recently during the liturgy. In the gospel of Mark, we see Jesus a little annoyed. (Mk 9:14-29) The disciples were not able to drive out a demon and they were discussing why.  “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me, ” Jesus exclaims. We see Jesus often full of patience, tenderness, and mercy, and reminding us not to judge. But, here, he disqualifies the disciples and the whole generation recklessly. He cannot stand them anymore. He is tired of them. Rather, he is tired of their lack of faith.

When he talks with the father about his sick son, the father says: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us”. Jesus responds: “‘If you can!’” as if to say, what a question. What a stupid question! How can one doubt the power of God and his power to heal? Jesus just does not get it. With these slightly sarcastic words “If you can,” in this terrifying moment for the father, I am reminded of the greatness and power of God. Sometimes we forget how great He is. And, thus, we cannot believe in him. His greatness, instead, is able to trigger our faith. This is what Jesus wants to do here. He does not reply: I am sorry, that you cannot believe yet. I am so sorry, see, faith is a journey, you will get there finally, don’t worry. No, he says: I worry, that you don’t see how great God is. And he adds: “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” With this, he reminds us that we are able to connect with God’s greatness in faith. Then the boy’s father cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” This confrontational therapy helped the father to reactivate his strength: Sure, I believe. And if there is anything lacking in my faith, God – you are great enough, complete it! And, well, Jesus heals the boy.

My Lord and my God, let me never think too small of you. Let me admire and acknowledge your greatness and might. Your power will pull me up. Your mercy will take care of my weakness. Let me not further annoy you. Let me trust that you CAN DO IT. How could you not?  Confront me when necessary. Heal me. Heal all those who are entrusted to my care. You can do it. Lord, help my unbelief.

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I Will Wake the Dawn

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“I will sing and chant praise.  Awake, my soul; awake, lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn.” Psalm 57:8-9

This is a bold claim—to wake the dawn. As if the dawn would not get up by itself. As if it would not wake me.

How do I feel in the morning? Sometimes full of joy and looking forward to the day’s events; sometimes worried and concerned, often just tired. For some of us the dawn is a relief because we could not sleep well.

In order to wake the dawn, I have to be up before the dawn. I have to be awake before the sun even wakes me. It is bold because as humans, we are part of nature and mother sun is huge and powerful. To be ahead even of her is an amazing thing.

The Psalm seems to point directly to Jesus Christ. The women discovered His rising from the dead “as the day was dawning.” This discovery, the resurrection of the Lord, brought a new light to their life that changed everything. It was truly a dawn of a new life. But when they discovered the empty tomb and the angel sitting there, the Lord was already risen. That means He had risen before the dawn. It means He is greater than the sun and moon; he is even before the sun. He is the true sun. He is the true light.

When we get up very early in the morning, when we wake the dawn – with our praise, with our joy –  we join the Lord. We can sense something of this new, everlasting, imperishable life. We are filled with joy because Jesus is even stronger than day and night, stronger than life and death. In Him all of this was created and finds its fulfillment.

Dear Lord, when I am tired and not motivated to wake up, let me think of you. You are ahead of me. You are ahead of this day, so I know that everything will be good. Let me be close to you. Let me be with you at the place where you have been even before all life was born. You give me a light and a life that cannot be destroyed, by no one and by nothing. Let my singing and chanting be an expression of this joy. Let me get up early. Let me wake the dawn.

Foolish Fears

During the summer months, we Benedictines here at Sant’Anselmo in Rome sometimes change the language of our prayers. We pray in English instead of Latin or Italian as we usually do because we have many international guests. The change of language always brings new discoveries and findings as I pray. Recently at our morning office when we chanted the hymn “As daylight fills the morning sky”, one sentence struck me. It goes:

May angry words and foolish fears
Be exorcised by heartfelt tears.

My attention was raised by the “foolish fears”. I was thinking: Yes, fears, for a Christian, are always foolish. Why should we be afraid? Of whom should we be afraid? “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” says St. Paul (Rom 8:35). And he continues: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39).

If we look at Christ soberly, calmly, trustingly, there is no reason for us to be afraid. God is with us, he is in us; he has died for us and freed us from the slavery of sin and death. How could he give us more? How could he have proven more that he loves us? So, I tell my fears: “Yes, you fears that creep up once in a while upon me: Know that you are foolish. I don’t need you.” Of course, when we look with concerns on what is going on in the world: we might have some fears. I am not saying that there are no justified fears. Sometimes they function to warn us or to bring us the right energy level, for example, stage fright. Still, in the end, fears are foolish if we deeply trust in God. In his presence, our fears vanish. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31)

Lord, I place myself right in the middle of your presence. Let me be bold in trusting you. Fear is not a Christian’s business. Instead courage, freedom in word and deed, and trust are fruits of your spirit. Any other spirits are foolish. Let me always live in this spirit. Let me set my foot on the water, as you have called me to do.

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Embracing the Cross

Sometimes there is a lot on our plate. Sometimes it is just too much what we have to bear. It is then that we realize what Jesus meant when he said everybody has to carry his cross. During my sabbatical time a couple years ago, I had the privilege to visit Glendalough, a 6th century monastery village in Ireland. Nestled in beautiful landscape are ruins of monastery houses and chapels and also a tall cross about twelve feet high. I was told if one was able to wrap one’s arms around the cross while making a wish, the wish would become true. I tried this, along with many others, but to be honest, I forgot the wish I had and I forgot if it later became true. Still it was a nice ritual.

Later somebody showed me the picture taken from the event and suddenly I realized what I actually did: I embraced the cross! This is the meaning of the ritual—if we embrace our cross, which always seems to be big – too big –, if we manage to fully take it on and accept it, our wish will be fulfilled. It means we will be okay. What will happen will be good for us. We will be ourselves instead of running away from ourselves, avoiding our cross. The cross is heavier if we don’t accept it. Instead, the suffering, if voluntarily accepted like Christ did, is a way to redemption. Seen from this perspective, it becomes again true what Jesus said: My yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Mt 11:30). It is difficult to accept our cross; it requires some stretching on our part, but we will be able to do it.

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“My yoke is easy.” (Mt 11:30)

Being contemporaries

I remember the theologian Karl Rahner in an interview speaking about “Zeitgenossenschaft”. Even though Germans are used to long words, I had never heard this particular word before. It means “contemporaneity”, occurring simultaneously or concurrently, having a “contemporary communal presence”. Rahner dropped it in a melancholic kind of way, stating that over the years one develops this sense of contemporaneity together with those whom we share the same time. Living at the same time can create a bond of familiarity and love. Our journeys of life may change; we meet each other, we walk together, and then – for professional, or personal, or whatever reasons – our ways part. But still, we are of one generation and we experience the same world, even when we are at different places. We experience the blessings and the crosses of the same time. I guess one reason for our fear of death is that we don’t want to leave our companions with whom we have walked.

There is a silent tenderness in being contemporaries, in coming from the same time. This is because God has blessed the time by the birth of his Son. God wanted to be our contemporary. We celebrate this at Christmas. God became man and the companion of many. They walked together; He went with them through thick and thin. It is touching to know that God wants to be my contemporary too. He wants to share my time. He wants to walk with me. Over time, the familiarity with Him grows. We don’t have to be in contact every minute, just walking together connects us.

Thank you, Jesus, for being my companion. Thank you for walking with me. Thank you for being interested in my life – my simple, limited life. It is good to know you as my contemporary. You want to grow old together with me. In turn, I want to love and honor all those who are my contemporaries.

Being contemporaries

Lord, You Know Me

It is wonderful to have a friend who knows you well, with whom you have walked for many years. With whom you can share everything; who knows your story. With whom a conversation does not start at zero, you can just jump into it. To have a person who understands and who knows you, is a great gift of God.

However, sometimes not even a friend can reach my heart. This is an odd experience. Sometimes we are just left with ourselves, left alone. We cannot find a partner that adequately responds to our feelings, our story, our thoughts, situation or needs. But these moments that can be filled with darkness and sadness can also turn into a very precious experience. The situation breaks us open to realize that our loneliness is not an accident, but the reflection of our deepest call as human beings that goes beyond what another human being can grasp or understand. We realize that our loneliness touches the dimension of God; it is a result of the fact that we are immediate to God. This is the monk’s moment. The term monk stems from the Greek word “monachos” which means “single, solitary”.

Through God’s grace, we are able in these moments of aloneness to talk to Christ or to God and find his ear. And his response is always exactly what we need. We realize: HE understands, HE knows. His presence resonates with everything I utter and express. I feel understood, appreciated, loved. I feel liked by him as by a good friend. But even better, and in a perfect way. Nothing is missing.

One of my favorite Psalms comes to mind:  Lord, you know me. You understand my thoughts from afar. You formed my inmost being. My very self you know. (cf Psalm 139).

As we leave this our inner “cell”, which is more than a room, we become open for any kind of God-filled relationship. We feel connected with the world and with everybody or everything that crosses our way. Because we are connected again with ourselves and with God.

Lord, you are my best friend; you are better than any friend ever could be. Give me good friendships and help me to maintain them. Open my heart to you when I feel lonely. Let me not give in to despair or sadness, but instead make me seek your presence. You know me. You understand me. How precious this is for me to know!

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