Friday, August 26, 2011

A Little Learning...

"A little learning is a dangerous thing..." So said poet Alexander Pope.

This truth comes home to me whenever I try to delve into the subtleties, connotations, and even mistranslations of passages in the Bible.

My "little learning" is in the biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

To cut to the chase, I am trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he cried out from the cross, "Eli, eli, lema sabachthani" (as Matthew 27:46 records it).

The Matthean text immediately translates this Aramaic expression into Greek, which we recognize as Psalm 22:2, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

I have often found consolation in this expression of anguish --in the Book of Psalms it is the lament of a soul who feels abandoned by God. It borders on despair. In fearful loneliness, someone's broken heart cries, "Why?"

To think that even Jesus had this struggle I can better accept my own moments of confusion and doubt. For a moment even Jesus experienced the agony of being left alone by a hiding God.

On occasion I have referred to this verse as comfort to the grieving or the overwhelmed. This is the dark night of the soul!

More recently, however, I have come to question my using Jesus as a model of near-despair.

My questioning began when I read George Lamsa's research on idioms in the Bible. Lamsa (1892-1975) was an Assyrian author (born in what is now Turkey) whose native language was Aramaic, the language we are pretty sure Jesus spoke.

Lamsa noted that in the Greek version of Matthew's Gospel (Lamsa grew up reading the Aramaic) the evangelist gave the original Aramaic and then he or a later editor translated the Aramaic expression into Greek.

The evangelist and Lamsa note that those standing beneath the cross misunderstood, thinking that Jesus was calling on the prophet Elijah.

Our Greek version of Matthew's Gospel clarified Jesus' Aramaic words by identifying them as Psalm 22:2. Lamsa, however, concluded differently.

He argued that if Jesus were quoting the psalm he would likely have said it in Hebrew. And if he were translating the Hebrew into Aramaic he would have used the word "nashatani" not "shabacktani."

Lamsa explains that "nashatani" means "forsaken me," but "shabacktani" means "kept me."

Thus, in Lamsa's understanding of the Aramaic, Jesus was saying, "My God, my God, for this I was kept," meaning, "this was my destiny --for this I was born."

The academic world with its Aramaic grammar and etymology offers little support for Lamsa's interpretation.

In Lamsa's defense, however, I would be so bold as to suggest that maybe the earliest Christians saw in Psalm 22 a prefiguring of the sufferings of Jesus: "all who see me mock water my life drains wasted are my hands and my feet that I can count all my bones...they divide my garments among them, for my clothing they cast lots."

Maybe these descriptions were applied to Jesus because they thought he was quoting Psalm 22 or maybe these descriptions so fit what happened to Jesus that they put Psalm 22:2 into his mouth.

Lamsa reasoned, "The disciples and women who were from Galilee never for a moment could have thought that Jesus said God had forsaken Him. How could He say that when He had told His disciples that the whole world would forsake Him, even they, but that the Father would be with Him."

All my questioning and research does nothing to the final verdict --Jesus suffered and died for our salvation!

On the other hand, I would like to know what really happened on that Friday on Golgotha, outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Perhaps the evidence has been taped and archived and part of eternity can be spent in reviewing the footage and seeing and hearing what actually happened nearly 2000 years ago.

Once again "a little learning" has forced me back to the books and left me with still more questions than answers.

Pope was right about the dangers and intoxication of "a little learning," but I'm not so sure that drinking largely really would bring sobriety.

Said the poet: "A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Recapture The Vision

Thomas Meton is probably the best known monk in America, but he was not beyond criticizing monasticism.

Franciscans follow the example of St Francis, but many of them will readily admit that their father Francis would be highly critical of the way they live.

Christians claim to follow Christ, but sometimes, in some cases, even Jesus would have a hard time seeing a reflection of his Gospel in what they say and do.

Merton said in his Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander that certain conceptions of monasticism "seem to me to be simply a fancy-dress adaptation of what we are claiming we have renounced."

Who can embrace Lady Poverty as Francis did? And wash the sores of lepers? And settle for the hermit's tunic, cord and sandals? And respond to life's troubles with "Peace and good!" as Francis did?

How can we take Jesus seriously when he instructs his followers to turn the other cheek, sell what we have and give the profits to the poor, and take no money or change of clothes when we are out on a missionary journey?

Some pundits explain that the example of the earliest monks, mendicants and missionaries was simply that --an example. It was not, these critics say, something to be slavishly imitated, but rather their example was an ideal to be pursued, a guide for direction --but always, always in moderation!

Those pundits may be right. But if monasticism and the dream of Francis and the Gospel of Jesus are to be effective today (in this 21st century), it means we have to keep coming back to them, keep re-visiting the ideal, keep judging our modus operandi in the light of these models.

One of the major efforts and benefits of the gathering of bishops at the Second Vatican Council was the insistence on looking back to the origins of the Church and the teachings of Christ.

There were some "new things" to merge from that Council, but in large measure the "changes," especially in liturgy and ecclesiology, were prompted by returning to the past. The overall mentality of the Council Fathers was not liberal but conservative. It was a conservative mindset that wanted to reclaim the ancient ways; it was a liberal mindset that wanted things to stay as they had developed during the Middle Ages.

Although the Vatican's interview (some call it inquisition) of the religious Sisters over the past few years was not always well-received, one postive result came from the encouragement that the Sisters should return to the charism of the founders of their orders.

The Sisters and Daughters of Charity reflected anew on the life and example of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. The Poor Clares revisted the model set by St. Clare. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament reviewed the ministry and spirituality of Mother Katharine Drexel.

Going back to the past is at the heart of recollection, reflection and retreat.

Going back to the past does not denigrate progress or undermine adapatation to current needs and circumstances. But going back to the past reminds us about where we came from and why we undertook the journey in the first place.

Look at the way the Church (the hierarchy) operates today. Look at the in-fighting between so-called theological traditionalists and progressives, between liturgical conservatives and liberals, between laity and clergy. Look at the personal and private ways you and I live our Christian commitment.

And then ask, "Is this what Jesus had in mind?"

Most of us will assess that the world is too much with us, that ego is in control, that the Gospel has been diluted to serve our own weaknesses and sense of well-being.

Periodically we must stop, go back, and re-assess. A return to our origins helps us re-capture the vision, and only in its light can we truly move forward.

It is still another paradox of the spiritual life: to advance you must go back.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Too Busy To Pray

I've gotten busy again --too busy to pray.

There are Masses in various parishes, talks to various groups, preparations for future parish missions, and of course household chores.

I can find time to "say my prayers" but setting aside time to pray has not been a priority.

There's more to praying than saying prayers. I've come to the conclusion that Catholics say too many prayers and do too little praying.

At least fifty-percent of praying ought to be silence. It's emptying the mind of words and being silent.

Prayer without words is more difficult than reading the divine office (the liturgy of the hours) or saying the rosary.

Prayer without words requires (or at least seeks) full focus on God. It includes a willingness to just be in God's presence, to enjoy God's company, to experience rather than talk about the "otherness" and the "closeness" of God.

When I'm too busy to pray I'm too busy!

It's time to prioritize, to begin spiritual exercise anew, to be rather than do.

Nearly all those who write about prayer insist on silence -quieting the mind so the heart can hear --being silent so God can get a word in edgewise. The more I talk the less I learn.

The daily prayer of the Jew (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4) begins with the word "Listen."

Moses got the people's attention with the simple command, "Be silent, O Israel, and listen!" (cf. Dt. 27:9).

In the midst of Jesus' transfiguration a voice from the cloud was heard to say, "This is my chosen Son; listen to him" (cf. Luke 9:35).

And here I am, doing it again. I sit here multiplying words, filling a blogpost because I think it is expected of me --when in fact I should be listening.

"Shh," my soul says to me. "Be quiet --at least for little while. Hush."

Friday, August 5, 2011

Don't Forget To Remember

One of the antidotes to the poisons of depression, discouragement, and despair is remembering.

During the exodus and the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness Moses encouraged the people to recall all that Yahweh had done for them.

The Israelites and the foreign elements among them grew despondent. They complained about the tasteless food, about the scarcity of water, about their seemingly endless, aimless sojourn toward the promised land.

In response, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people of all the good things Yahweh had done for them: "Did anything so great ever happen before?" (4:32).

God spoke to them and they heard the divine voice! God freed them from slavery in Egypt by means of extraordinary signs and wonders! God manifest his presence in the form of fire! And further, God gave them the law so that they and their children may prosper!

Given the many years and difficult climate these refugees had to face, it is not surprising that they should on occasion lose heart and murmur against Moses' leadership.

And such a reaction (complaining, murmuring, and discouragement) is not foreign to us.

Most of us, at one time or another, become restless and even resentful when things do not go our way, when we feel God has abandoned us, when the effort seems beyond our endurance.

Such feelings and the behaviors that accompany them can poison our relationship with God, pervert our rapport with others, and pollute how we rate ourselves.

The Bible's response to this kind of discontent is to recall, reflect, remember.

We are advised to call to mind all the gifts we have enjoyed. God has given us life, has revealed his plan to us, has invited us to cooperate in the salvation process.

Countless souls on earth today have never heard of Jesus, have no notion that the Creator is a loving God, have no sense of being called to share in God's good work.

The blessings of our religion are enormous.

Further, most of us have more than our fair share of earthly goods as well. We have food, water, shelter, medical care, family, friends, etc., etc.

Upon reflection we can think of occasions when we were helpless, and God stepped in to help us. When we felt life was meaningless, and God restored the joy of our youth. When we were guilty and ashamed, and God showed us mercy, forgiveness, and compassion.

It is obvious that remembering is a good thing, that it is strongly recommended by God, when we recall what Jesus said and did on the night before he died. He gave us the memorial of his sacrifice, his body and blood to sustain us.

Mass is a time for praising God, for offering sacrifice, for sharing in the heavenly food, for hearing God's message --it is a time for remembering.

If Moses were preaching today, he would put it bluntly, "Don't forget to remember."

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
Yes, I remember your wonders of old.
And I meditate on your works,
Your exploits I ponder.

O God, your way is holy.
What great god is there like our God?
You are the God who works wonders.
Among the people you have made known your power.

With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph.
You led your people like a flock...
(Ps 77).

Mass is a time for remembering --and our personal recollection of the deeds of the Lord is powerful medicine for any tired soul!