LISTEN, WATCH, AND WAIT: AN ADVENT MEDITATION

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One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms.  This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God.  When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.  

The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)

The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts.  If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.

All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M.  At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M.  While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year. 

The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray.  It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.

While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush.  I hadn’t.  I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark. 

In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.

At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing.  God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).

The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast.  It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  

In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent.  The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.  

Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us.  Every day is a day in which God might speak to us.  Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us.  Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you.  Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God. 

 

In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.

May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.

 

THANKSGIVING FOR THE ABUNDANCE OF CREATION

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In late October, a good many years ago, my wife and I drove to Maine for a weeklong vacation. We went to see the fall foliage and to relax and retreat from the demands of everyday life. As we drove across the border, we were greeted by a sign that read: “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” I’m not sure how true this sounds to anyone who lives and works in Maine year-round, but for us weary travelers, it was music to our ears.

As we drove through the park, stopping periodically to get out of our car, we spotted the rich cranberry colors of blueberry plants long after they have surrendered their large juicy berries. We also admired the lichen in every shade of green, gray, and orange that grew on the mountain rocks.  On every side, we were surrounded by the abundance and bounty of nature.

We spent a few days of our vacation in a small cabin on Mt. Desert Island, five minutes from the entrance to Acadia National Park.  The drive through the park and to the summit of Cadillac Mountain is always splendid. On a clear day, one can see mountain lakes, small islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and foliage in every shade of red, orange, yellow, and green.

Where nature is full of bounty, the world that we humans have constructed, and in which we now live, is ordered by economies of production and consumption in which scarcity is a defining principle. The price of an object, as we well know, is based in part on the degree of its availability. The more rare or scarce an object is, and the more others desire it, the more it will cost. Shaped by these economic forces from the moment we become aware of the world around us, it is easy to see how our attitude towards our money and possessions is shaped by an attitude that sees the world in terms of the scarcity of things.  This attitude is what philosophers call a “pre-understanding, that is, an attitude or worldview that precedes everything we encounter.  It is just “the way that it is” for us.  In human societies, however, it is important to remember that things do not always have to be the way that they are; they could be otherwise.

The stories of the Bible, written long ago, offer us a glimpse of a world very different from our own. In the Old Testament, the prophets see it as their duty to remind the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, both ruled by monarchies, that life could be different—that under God’s rule or reign the world could be ordered differently from the way human rulers order the world. If we read the Bible carefully, we may find that our attitudes to the world in which we now live may not be as fixed as we might at first have thought.

In the midst of a severe drought, the prophet Elijah visited a poor widow who lived with her only son in Zarephath. He asked her for water and a morsel of bread. She replied: “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die” [I Kings 17: 12]. Elijah told her not to be afraid. He directed her to make a small little cake for him and for her and her son and promised the woman if she did so, her jar of meal and jug of oil would not fail until the drought had ended.

Elijah, Walter Brueggmann observes, “enacts a world of guaranteed abundance for the widow, in defiance of more conventional arrangements of scarcity.” This encounter “is not a ‘do-good’ act of charity, “ but rather “a revolutionary act that rejects the myth of scarcity fostered by the privileged, a myth accepted by the widow who has no available alternative. The prophet is able to enact this ‘wonder’ of meal and oil,” because “in God’s creation “there is more than enough.  This story, then, affirms the “generosity of the creator who has given enough gifts for all” while at the same time criticizing the monarchical government and economy under which the poor woman lives, which has organized the “abundance of creation” by means of a “practice of scarcity.” [Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing), 216.]

Our contemporary world, like that of the ancient royal world of Elijah’s day, Brueggemann concludes, subscribes to a myth of scarcity.”  This scarcity, however, is not the way it has to be; it is an imposed power arrangement whereby some have too much so that, consequently, some have too little.

Most of us are far richer than we ever imagine because scarcity thinking shapes our perspective on life. In the stewardship of our own resources, including our treasures, time, and talents to God, we more often live according to a “pre-understanding” of scarcity than we do to a celebration of the overwhelming abundance of God’s creation. The Bible continually reminds us that God’s world is not governed by scarcity but by overwhelming abundance.  Jesus promises us that he has come that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Signs of “the way life should be”—or could be — surround us all the time, but you may not see them if you look at the world around you solely in terms of scarcity. Would life be different for you if you began to think in terms of abundance?

THE VIRTUE OF SELF-CONTROL

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Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues, is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

We find a similar list of virtues in 2 Peter presented as a plan for those who seek to make progress in the Christian life.

[Y]ou must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:5–8 NRSV).

To help understand the flow of the argument in 2 Peter, it is helpful to arrange the words in a different, more structured, way.

You must make every effort to support your:

Faith with goodness (lit. virtue)

Goodness with knowledge

Knowledge with self-control

Self-control with endurance

Endurance with godliness

Godliness with mutual affection (Gk. Philadelphian, lit. “brotherly love”)

Mutual affection with love

Love….

In the classical Greek thought of Aristotle, the word “virtue” refers literally to an “excellence,” a behavior, that we develop over time.  We gain virtue from practice.  Virtue, in other words, is gained much like a skill.  We learn as we fail and as we succeed, always building and growing.  We don’t gain virtue all at once but rather we develop it over time.

In 2 Peter we find the outlines of a program for the formation of Christian virtue; it begins with faith and ends with love, the pinnacle of Christian virtue (“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1Cor. 13:13).  The purpose of the program is so that we may not be “ineffective” or “unfruitful.” In more positive terms, the program is presented so that our lives in Christ might bear fruit, genuine fruit.

When we compare the list of virtues that St. Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) with the list in 2 Peter, we find some similarities and differences.  “Patience” and “endurance” have similar, but not exact, meanings as do “gentleness” and “mutual affection” (lit. “brotherly love.”). [The virtue of endurance refers to the ability to hold up under difficult circumstances.  For that reason, I wrote about that virtue previously relating it to the “resilience” we need to bounce back from upsets, disappointments, and failures.]

The only two words, however, that are precisely the same in both Galatians and 2 Peter are “self-control” and “love.”

I would like to focus further attention on the virtue of “self-control.”  “The virtue of self-control” “involves the restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, and desires.” *

The New Testament writers were familiar with Greco-Roman philosophical ideas about moral virtue of self-control.  The idea was common to the Greek philosophies of Epicurus and Zeno, the father of Stoicism. It is also found in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 25:28, for example, we read: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”

A staple of Hellenistic moralism, we find self-control central to the argument of 4 Maccabees, a book not found in our Bible, but one that is canonical in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

[I]t is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain (4 Mac. 1:4).

Modern psychological study and research now recognize that reason does not always go hand in hand with self-control, especially when it comes to addiction. People facing addiction realize all too readily that they have no power within themselves to control themselves. That is why the beginning of treatment starts with the recognition of the powerlessness of the human will in the face of addiction.

To live and work with others productively in community, we have to exercise some measure of self-control.  We should always think before we speak. In James 1:19 we find just such an admonition: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….”  Notice it does not say quick to speak and slow to listen, but “quick to listen and slow to speak.”   Here a practical example is given to help us understand what it means to exercise self-control in our dealings with others.

The New Testament is full of advice on how to live together in community.  While there is much more I could say about this, the words of St. Paul sum it up best when he says that we should “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  Striving to do that first and foremost lays the foundation for the “self-control” of our impulses and emotions.

*Michael J. Harrington, S.J, Jude and 2 PeterSacra Pagina Series. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 244-5.

LOVE— PART 2

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This reflection is the second part of an exploration into the meaning of love in the letters of St. Paul. It is part of a larger collection of my reflections on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ.

The Fruit of the Spirit — Love, Part 2

The most familiar passage in the New Testament about love is perhaps the description we find of it in the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).

In the film “Wedding Crashers” the two main characters, played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, crash the wedding ceremony of an unsuspecting couple. As the pastor invites a reader to the lectern, Wilson whispers to Vaughn: “20 bucks, 1st Corinthians.”  Vaughn replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Then, in the background, the reader begins reading the first verse of 1 Cor. 13 — “Love is patient, love is kind…” — and Vaughn having lost the bet, pays up.

This vignette shows just how popular and well known the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is to the general public, even to folks who may not know much about the contents of the New Testament.

While we immediately see the applicability of this passage from 1st Corinthians to the marriage of two people before God, in its original context this beautiful passage of Scripture was not written to describe Christian marriage.  St. Paul was writing to a Christian community to teach and direct them in the ways that they should love and respect each member of the church.  St. Paul addressed 1st Corinthians to a church divided by factions, each with its own set of conflicting interests, that bore witness to division and not to the mutual love and respect that should have been on display in that particular community.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church members, gently chastising them where necessary, but always with love and great respect.

At the beginning of the letter, he writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10. Throughout the ensuing letter, Paul urges the people of the church in Corinth to treat one another with mutual respect, as for example in 1 Cor. 10:24 when he writes, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”

St. Paul hopes to form a Christian community built on mutual respect and love.  In this community, each person is invaluable and irreplaceable.  For St. Paul, when we respect another person, we not only show respect to our own self, we respect the person of Jesus Christ who has called and incorporated the other into his own body, the Church.  That is why St. Paul can write the following sentences:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it(1 Cor. 12:12; 24-27v).

It might escape our notice, on first reading the beautiful words about the meaning and practice of genuine love in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, that the attributes of love that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13 are those that usually are ascribed to God. St. Paul, however, desires earnestly that this sort of love be embodied in the behavior of the Christians living in the church to which he writes in Corinth.[1]

“Love is patient, love is kind….”  The description of what genuine love looks like on the ground in 1 Corinthians can also be used to flesh out the meaning of the virtues

St. Paul lists in Galatians 5: 22-23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  The fruit of the Spirit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ, and love is first and foremost on that list.

Let’s examine St. Paul’s description of love one more time:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7). One thing that stands out that often runs counter to our own expectations is St. Paul’s statement that love “does not insist on its own way.”  This statement is often overlooked.  We sometimes seem to think that if someone truly loves us that they should agree with us in everything.  Personal relationships often falter on this very point. When we love someone, it does not mean that the other person always has to do things just the way we think they should be done.  Genuine love allows for genuine difference in our relationships. As long as there mutual respect and love exist, people can agree to disagree and still live together in loving relationships with one another.

A church that is faithful to Jesus Christ is a community shaped by the love of Jesus Christ in which people can agree to disagree on some things, but not on the essential character of the church, which is always formed by mutual respect and love for one another.

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13: 13).


[1] Raymond F. Collins; Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1 CorinthiansSacra Pagina Series, volume 7 (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1999), pp. 476 ff.

LOVE

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:13)

Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

The most difficult Christian virtue to write about is love.  The word is used so often and in so many different contexts that its meaning is diffuse. Love in common parlance is used to refer both the object of our affection or desire and our relationship to it or someone else. We say, for example, that we love our spouse, our children, our parents, and our grandchildren while at the same time we say that we love chocolate ice cream.

Part of the confusion is caused by the fact the in the English language love is both a noun and a verb.  Love then is both a virtue and an action. When we speak about love in the context of a church community we usually distinguish between God’s love for us and our love for one another. Our love for one another in Christian community is always modeled on God’s love for us but God’s love is both beyond our capacity to understand and to enact fully in our lives.

Talking about the love God has for each of us can be so clichéd. We have heard about it so often and in such vague terms that it becomes meaningless. Krister Stendahl, the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Sweden who taught my seminary preaching class, gave his students the following advice: whenever you preach about God’s love, do so sparingly.  If you talk about it too much it will go in and out of the ears of your hearers almost immediately. They won’t hear it at all.  Remember, he said, when preaching that “a little love goes a long way.” That is why I saved writing about the virtue of love until last.

This post is the first of two in which I will begin to explore the meaning of love, particularly as we read about in the letters of St. Paul and other New Testament writers. The topic, of course, is enormous and a thousand books I fear would not be enough to exhaust it.  This article will examine the love of God for us and the love of one another in the community of the church.

Throughout the Old Testament, and most often in the Psalms, we find this refrain: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good for his steadfast love endures forever.”  The words “his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 42 times in the Old Testament.  The Hebrew word the NRSV translates as “steadfast love” is hesed.   It is often translated as “mercy” or perhaps even better as “loving-kindness.”

Mercy and loving-kindness are at the heart of God’s very being.  This is also reflected in the New Testament book of 1 John where we find these words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

For Christians, the model of love is Jesus Christ himself.  The love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ is not selfish but self-giving.  Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, lays down his life for us.  The writer of the Gospel of John observes that “God loved the world so much that God gave his only begotten Son” for us and for our salvation.  (See Jn. 3:16). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRSV). God’s love, in other words, is made most evident to us in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus, for us and for our salvation.

Throughout the New Testament, the example of God’s love as modeled for us in Jesus Christ is made the cornerstone of our love for one another.  The example of Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of how we should act towards one another in Christian community.  The author 1 John says this quite directly:

Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7–11)

Because God loved us so much, we ought to love one another. The model for how we are to love one another is shaped by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. It is a cross-shaped love, a love willing to sacrifice the self on behalf of another. This love always looks first to the good of the other.  St Paul captures that spirit when he advises Christians on how to live together in community with these words: “Let love be genuine; …love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor “(Rom. 12:9-10).

St. Paul writes this immediately after he says: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:4, 6).  In other words, St. Paul is saying that we all are not alike. We are different people with different abilities and gifts.  Our abilities, our greatest strengths, are not the same nor should they be. If we truly love other persons we should not try to shape them into our own image but rather seek to love and honor them, as God by virtue of our baptism has called the other into community with us.

Imagine what Christian community would be like if we each strove to outdo one another in showing honor to one another. What if we made a point to honor everyone for who and what they are, without criticism, without rancor, without bitterness, but sought first their welfare and dignity over that of our own? How might it change our life at home, at work, at church, and in the wider world?

As St. Paul says, “Think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

To be continued. In part 2, I will discuss the most familiar passage in the New Testament concerning love: the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

This summer I began to re-read one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for his novels Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain  (Der Zauberberg, 1924).

In 1995 a new English translation of the novel was published that I found preferable to the older translation I had first started to read many years ago. So with a new translation in hand, I began reading the book again.  Ι  say I’m reading  the book again because although  I have read a good part of it at least twice,  I have never managed to  finish it. I seem to get to page 300 or so and then move on to other things without finishing it. Mann said that he thought the book properly should be read twice, once to get the overall story and the second time for the symbolism and the deeper meaning.  So this time, I suppose I’m taking his word and I am determined to finish it.

The novel tells the story of the young Hans Castorp who in the years prior to WWI comes for a three-week visit to his cousin Joachim, a patient at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the mountains in Davos, Switzerland. During his first three weeks as a visitor, Castorp is diagnosed with a lesion on his lung and ends up becoming a resident of the sanitarium for the next seven years. Mann envisioned the book as a reflection on two themes. First the novel was a symbolic description of the terminal sickness of Europe in the years prior to the first World War and second it was a reflection on our human experience of the passage of time

Mann’s reflections on time were influenced by Einstein’s theory of  general relativity and his description of our movement through space-time, as well as by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological studies of time consciousness, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will, and numerous other philosophical, psychological, and political  thinkers of the day. The sanitarium serves as the stage on which a wide variety of these ideas and political positions battle for the allegiance of young hero of the novel.

Einstein’s observations about the fourth dimension of time or rather the inseparability of space and time had a profound impact on the structure of the novel. Einstein’s work on general relativity was first published in 1915, seven years prior to the publication of The Magic Mountain. To plot a location at any given time we need the latitude and longitude (the X and Y axes)  and the elevation (the Z axis). That is how three-dimensional space is ordered and accounted for in scientific and mathematical terms. Without accounting for the fourth dimension of time, however, our  location is still indeterminate. If you and I, for example, are in the same location on the X, Y, and Z axes at  different times, then we cannot say in the present moment  that we are in the exact same location. As we move through space we also move through time.

For me, the most remarkable thing about the novel is the way in which Mann in the telling of the story reflects on the way in which we experience the passage of time. Have you ever noticed. when you travel to an entirely different location than that to which you are accustomed in every day life, that time seems to go slower than when were are at home in our usual locales?  In that circumstance a single day can seem like two or three days. In the novel, Castorp’s first day seems almost to last forever. The first week seems to last for weeks. By the third week, looking back it seems as if he has been on the mountain for long, long time and yet the time, the time he has spent there seems to have flown by. The first three hundred pages or so of the novel are devoted to the first three weeks of Castorp’s stay. Or, to look at it another way, the first five chapters narrate the first year of Castorp’s stay, and the last two chapters, the remaining six years. In these last six years, time seems to fly by almost unaccounted for as if in the twinkling of an eye.

I thought a lot about Mann’s reflections on the experience of the passage of time during my trip to Stuttgart in late July to present a paper at an academic conference. The first days of my trip  (after accounting for jet-lag) seemed to last forever but by the end of the conference it seemed as if the time had just flown by. How is that, I wondered, and what, if anything, are we to do about it?

The narrator of the novel gives a partial answer:

Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull. … We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time—and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshlng epìsodes. The few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long-stride— that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable.

As we seek to live rewarding, fulsome lives, we need to structure time and space away from the grind of everyday life in which time seems to contract and in which the hum-drum is the ordinary state. This does not mean that we should never put down roots. Without solid deep roots, like plants in a drought, we would perish.  Our human roots, unlike plants, do not stay in the same location all day. We move around even as we are rooted in homes, families, and communities, including the church. On occasion, however, we seem to need the experience of a new place to slow the passage of time, so that in that new time, we can rediscover ourselves and perhaps come to a new awareness of our passing through time. Castorp, living in a sanitarium in which death was a frequent occurrence, observes that we all are moving endlessly toward death. This memento mori serves to bring our temporal limits to consciousness and to awaken us to ourselves so that in the time we have left (and we never know how much that is), we can make the most of our lives.

Now that I have gotten this off my chest (Castorp might have appreciated this pun), I should get back to my “re-reading.” The enchanted mountain awaits my summiting.  I’m now on page 301….

EUCHARISTIC COMMUNITY


Photo by Kate Remmer on Unsplash

Note: This is a follow-up to my post “We are Eucharistic Beings” from November 20, 2018.

All of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are important. But the question that always stands out for me as a parish priest is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”

Making this promise puts us in continuity with the earliest church, the church of the apostles. In Acts 2:42 we read that the members of the earliest Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The central aspects of my ministry are shaped by this promise. I strive to teach and proclaim the apostolic faith of the church and to foster a Eucharistic community in which fundamental respect for the dignity of every person is not only welcomed but essential.

The other promises made in the Baptismal Covenant fall under this “devotion,” this commitment to living in a community formed by the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We can only “respect the dignity of every human being” when we respect the members of our own community, the people we often know best but find most difficult to live with. In my ministry,  I find that people long for genuine community. They long for a place where they can love and be loved in return. This recapitulates the whole story of the Bible: God desires to form a people, first Israel and then the Church, who will love God and whom God will love in return.

In community, we have to learn to love people we do not necessarily like. That is why Christians need the Church. We need its community and fellowship if we are to grow and mature in our Christian lives. Christians need the church to teach them how to love others fully and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”

The response to the baptismal questions is important to keep in mind: “I will with God’s help.” Remaining in communion and fellowship with others is not always easy. We can only do it with God’s help, and God is always present to assist.

When we promise to continue in “the breaking of bread” we acknowledge that we are Eucharistic “companions,” literally, persons with whom we share bread. In a true Eucharistic community, we do not have to agree on everything. We only have to agree to continue to break bread and share it with one another. In a Eucharistic community, I believe, genuine diversity and differences of opinion can live side by side because in community we fundamentally live for one other.

Finally, when we promise to “continue in the prayers” we make a fundamental commitment that we will lift up and honor all of God’s people, and the world in which we live, before God. Prayer reminds us that everything we have comes from God and that nothing we have comes from ourselves alone. We are “Eucharistic beings” who are created by God to give thanks. It is only when we offer prayer and thanks to God and when we care to the utmost for those who are different from ourselves — always respecting the dignity of every human being — that we live into our full humanity.