10 March 2006

Leave it there!

1st Week of Lent 2006 (F): Ezekiel 18.21-28; Matthew 5.20-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving and Church of the Incarnation, Univ. of Dallas

Hear it!
I’ve decided to spend the rest of Lent in the desert west of San Antonio. I’m leaving right after Mass. Nothing but me, the sand, the hot wind, and a few lizards. I’ve packed the absolute essentials for desert survival: nonperishable food, lots of water, light but durable clothing, portable shelter…my laptop and printer, my cell phone, a small TV with satellite feed and TIVO, a microwave oven, an electric razor, a minifridge, portable air conditioning unit, a CD player, two trunks of books, a full set of vestments and Mass kit, twelve pairs of shoes, a cappuccino machine, and a table-top Kitchen-Aid mixer.

I’m also bringing a thirst for God, a hunger for righteousness, a longing need for love and hope, a contrite heart, several wounds that I won’t let heal, a couple of well-nursed grudges, some petty competitiveness, three sins that even God can’t forgive, a quiet self-loathing rooted in a fear of the flesh, several strange obsessions with rules and ritual observances, self-righteousness, pride, an envy of others’ gifts, a couple of huge decisions that I have to make soon, an unwillingness to say thank you to God, and a sure sense that I deserve more than I’m getting. With all of that and that minifridge on my back, I should be dead within a week!

No, I’m not going to the desert west of San Antonio. And, no, I’m not carrying any of that stuff around. But I am wondering how tempted we are to treat out Lenten retreat just this way. Are you tempted to bring into this time of survival in the desert alone with God all of the extraneous things of your life, all of the excesses of stuff, excesses of anxiety, hurry, plotting and planning, hurts, fears, lapses in holiness? You are? Good!

In some sense, I think this is the right way to do Lent! Bring all of this along. Bring your doubts, your panic, your rushing around, all your future preparations, all the sins you can’t or won’t let go of. Bring it all to the desert of Lent! But leave it there. Take it all into the desert and leave it there. Leave it all to the fired wilderness, the scouring sand, and burning wind. You are here among the cacti and lizards for forty days to survive alone with the Father, to be set ablaze with the austerity of a simple need—a need for Him alone.

This is the time to run after righteousness. A righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Run after the righteousness of a heart scrubbed raw by humility. Not a heart stressed to failure by meticulous rule-following or showy acts of religiousy compliance. Or a heart murdered by useless anxiety, self-pitying guilt, or a deep love for unhappiness. Jesus dares us to a righteousness, a justice of the spirit that settles us firmly into the peace of our Father’s rule.

You are dared by Christ to surrender, to just give up, give up everything that bends your back, hardens your heart, darkens your spirit. You are dared to walk into the desert naked and alone, and find there the peace of His kingdom, the rule of His eternal favor. And find Him there rejoicing at your freely offered sacrifice of a heart burned bare, your heart set ablaze by a longing, an aching need for His mercy.

07 March 2006

Pagan babbling, Christian prayer

1st Week of Lent 2006 (T): Isa 55.10-11; Matthew 6.7-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!
Do you babble like the pagans or do you pray as Christ taught us to pray? To babble like a pagan is to rattle off memorized lines like a fifth grader streaking through a recitation of a bad poem for an English class. To babble is to believe that those memorized lines of bad poetry are magically effective, some sort of voodoo that gives one control of God. Pagan babbling is also almost always about “just getting it done,” a formal “doing one’s duty,” pro forma obligation fulfillment so that the goodies may now start to fall from heaven. Christians cannot pray this way because there is nothing magical, merely formal, or hurried about how we talk to our Father.

We do not pray to change God’s mind. We do not pray in order to negotiate with God. Our prayers are not spells that if perfectly performed guarantee perfect results. For us, to pray is to ask God for good things, to offer Him praise and thanksgiving, to intercede for others with Him, to bless and adore Him, and to be still, quiet in His presence, waiting on His fertile Word.

St. Gregory of Nyssa says of prayer, “Prayer is intimacy with God […]For the effect of prayer is union with God[…]” What we do in prayer is bring ourselves as a living sacrifice to the Lord. We give ourselves up so that we might be made holy in Him. We turn our hearts over to Him so that we will be made proper instruments of His living Word. We surrender our will, humble ourselves in a pure act of creaturely awe. Prayer is the perfect answer to the Lord’s gratuitous summons to live with Him now, to participate fully in His divine nature forever. We cannot babble nonsense because we pray His Word for us, in us, through us.

God speaks to Isaiah, telling him that like giving seed to one who sows seed and bread to one who eats bread, the Lord will give His Word to those who will speak His Word so that that Word will not return to Him as wasted sound, mere breath but that it will do His will, doing all those things that the Lord wills it to do. In other words, we are given prayer so that we might know and do God’s will. The words we speak in prayer, if we pray in His Spirit, are, in fact, The Word—not just any old words, but The Word given to us, planted in our hearts to produce excellent fruit, to spread like abundant vines, and to be shared copiously with any and all.

Christ the Word made flesh teaches us to pray, a particular prayer and a model of praying. He teaches us to call God our Father, the One Who made us from nothing. We bless His Name, so that we can be living witnesses to His blessings. We pray that His kingdom will come for us and through us, working in the world as agents of His Spirit, members of His body to do what His Word asks of us. We pray for what we need not because He doesn’t know our needs, but because by asking for what we need we are truly humbled—not degraded—but made better aware of our dependency on Him for everything we need. We ask to be forgiven in the same way that we forgive. A daring prayer! And we ask for protection against temptation and evil.

None of this is babble. It is the Word given to us so that our words glorify Him, so that our hearts and minds are shown His love for us, so that we are made ready for our lives with Him now and in glory forever.

05 March 2006

With the Devil in the Desert

1st Sunday of Lent 2006: Gen 9.8-15; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.12-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Hear it!
I find him sitting with his back against a rock, staring at the heat waving above the dry-cracked river bed. He smells of hot cedar smoke, burnt bees’ wax, and drying sweat. When my shadow touches his bare feet, he moves them away and turns as if to look at me, then stops and stares again at the blistering sand. I wave my hand to greet him, my shadow again touching his feet and legs. This time he doesn’t move. It’s always the same with him. He knows I’m here. Right here with him. But he stubbornly ignores me or moves away at my dark touch. I take a deep breath, gather my silk robes around my legs to sit, and as I fall into place in front of him, he sighs and begins to pray aloud. Scratchy, mumbling nonsense. Groveling little bits of spontaneous poetry and half-remembered words and phrases stolen from thin, crumbling scrolls. I just listen and wait. Most days we sit together in silence like this, waiting on one another.

When the sun touches the tallest mountain, he stops muttering. The dry burn of the desert wind eases a bit. There’s a promise of wet air, of moisture from somewhere out of the north. I clear my throat. I see a small smile on his lips. Just as I open my mouth to argue again, wild beasts begin to gather near us. This happens every night about this time. And I am surprised again, always surprised, by the fierce brilliance of the crown of angels that seems to float miles away behind his head. Tensed to fight, they just hold there radiating His glory—a sky crowded with angelic mirrors flashing His beauty. How very servile of them to pose so. How very grand it all is. A perfect waste of power.

I catch him watching me watch his ministers. You see, he knows that I know that he won’t call them. He could. No doubt. But he won’t. It’s a matter to pride with him. That’s my secret weapon: his pride. He’s the favored Son. I’m the fallen Daystar. He’s the Anointed One. I’m the Marked One. He is Righteousness and I am Rebellion. And I’m here, again, to show him the error of his Way, to offer him something far better than a life wasted on dumb humility, unrequited love, and pointless sacrifice. I am here to tempt him away from his self-destructive path, away from the terrible, bloody death that those dirty little apes he loves so much will give him. I will show him riches, power, and his own pride. I will tempt him to resist me on his own, without those shiny angels coming to his rescue!

I gather myself for the show, for the theatre of the absurd that will surely wake him up to his desperate folly. But before I can collect myself fully, he starts to chuckle. Just a small laugh at first. Then he burst out with a deep guffaw! A belly laugh from the Son of God. I just stare at him. Surely the heat has driven him mad. He stops. And he opens his eyes, looking at me, through me, right to the center of the goodness that is my very existence. I fumble for an excuse, some reason to protest the invasion of my privacy, but I can only stare back at the fullness of beauty, goodness, and truth that He Is.

Without moving he says, “Perdition, you are here again to lie to me, to put between me and our Father a temptation. Do it then.” I swallow hard and plead, “My Lord, can’t you see that the course laid out for you is disastrous? Can’t you see the possibilities for us, the potential of our rule if you would turn to me for help? Can’t you see your ignominious end? The scandal of it!” He chuckles again, “You are worried about scandal? Try another one, Deceiver. Put yourself behind me so that I may go forward. You are dust and wind.” He gently waves his hand toward the cooling desert. I grow angry at his dismissal, “Wow! You really are stupidity itself, aren’t you. Wasted power, wasted opportunities.”

I sputter for a while longer, hoping that my indignity at his rudeness will move him to talk to me again. Nothing. I conjure images of wealth—jewels, fine horses, palaces. Nothing. I conjure images of power—a throne for the worlds, slaves, armies. Nothing. Finally, I conjure images of personal dignity—his freedom from the trails ahead, the esteem of his rabbinical colleagues, the love of the crowds cheering him. Nothing. Again, nothing.

I gird my silk robes, bracing myself for one final assault on this mulish Nazarene. I shout at him: “You’re proud! It’s pride that makes you think you are better than my gifts, too good to pick up what I give you. Pride!” He shifts his feet under him, rises to stand before me. He looks over my head as if reading a text behind me, “You are nothing, brother. Shapes, shadows, quick glimpses, and shallow sighs.” My indignity is unmatchable! “I am Lucifer, Morning Light! I am First Chosen of the Angels! I know who I am!” His eyes move to focus on mine. He squints against a finally setting sun, “I will teach you who you are. Fallen creature. Sinner. Liar. Killer of Hope. Tempter. I know your true names: Perdition. Chaos. Betrayal. You cannot win with me because I am driven here by the Spirit of our Father to fast and pray and to prepare myself for what I am about.”

Panicked, I reach for what I have, anything at all, and say, “They won’t love you for your sacrifice, you know? They will not come to you after you are betrayed and convicted, and sent into the dead ground. They will deny you. They will run and hide and waste time pointing fingers and accusing one another. I will make sure that they forget you.” If anything he looked calmer, “Yes, I suppose you will. But they like me will have their forty days in the desert, their time and place apart to burn away the excess, to trim the burdensome and ridiculous, to pray and serve, and to remember that they are dust—dust given life by our Father’s breath and made holy in His love for them.”

What arrogance! The man is insane. I have to ask, “You came into this dead waste to pray and serve and to remember that you are dust? You? The favored Son? The Messiah? You fled to this place? Why? Why would you do such a stupid thing?” Again, he smiles slightly at me, at my vehemence, and says, “I will teach you again, Satan. I am in this desert for forty days to remember the journey of Moses and his people out of slavery. I am in this desert for forty days to teach those to come how to live with our Father. I am here to survive with Him alone, to live stripped of pretense, theatre, guile, and luxurious want. I am here so that those whom you will tempt tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will know that they need only to call upon the Father’s mercy, to repent, believe the gospel, and then know that they are free of you forever.” His eyes blaze for a moment, then calm again.

I give up! My time with him is up anyway. My time with him is wasted breath. You, you however, well, you’re just beginning, aren’t you? What, day five or six, now, of the forty? Come, let me show you to my favorite rock and the riches I can offer you. Let me show you my toys, my little inventions, and help you choose a Way more to my…I mean…your liking.

So tell me, little ones, what tempts you?