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Prayer, Praise, and the Real World

At noon today I made a first-ever visit to the Abbey of Regina Laudis at Bethlehem, Connecticut.  Sweeping east to west from Portland I arrived within about an hour.  Entering the monastery grounds off Flanders Road I drove slowly uphill, keeping my eyes on the signs.  I spied the Chapel where I knew prayer would be taking place at noontime.  I was there early and settled into the simple knotty pine chapel while one of the nuns arranged flowers and plants near the altar.  Other visitors came in for prayers, only one other male among them, a boy of (I would say) about 6 years on the planet.  He was there in the company of his older sister and two women.

[Photo: Father Jack SJ MD]

As the place was so quiet, the pre-prayer conversation of that little group was heard by default.  The boy turned to one of the women and raised a perceptive question: "Do the sisters," he asked, "ever get bored?"  I do not recall his mom or aunt's response, but the question got me thinking.  "Do the sisters ever get bored?"

First of all the question implies (and not for the first time) that one of the worst things that can happen to us in the 21st century is to be bored.  I suspect, in fact, that living as human beings together in community, there may well be boredom as well as excitement, contentment, wonderment, and all the other quite human responses to living in the experience of the nuns.  

But my next thought was this: what a wonderful thing!  To be bored.  The very possibility, in the context of the 'real world' (as it is sometimes called outside monastic enclosures) strikes me as heavenly.  In a world situation in which, within hours of our gathering there at Bethlehem to pray, north Korea launched their second intercontinental ballistic missile of this month, evidencing capacity to reach many of the major metropolitan areas of the USA, according to news reports including Denver, Chicago and New York; in this context, boredom sounds like a blessing.  In a world in which, I cannot at this point say different or less, the USA itself boasts a chief executive who, if at all, is revealed in his stream-of-consciouness tweets to be only marginally less bizarre than north Korea's Kim Jong Un, yes, boredom is worthy of embrace, welcome, and thanks, were it to arrive.

The word 'bore' and its eventual application to human persons showed up only in the very late 18th century.  Decades later the variant 'boredom' was born apparently from the pen of the great Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House of 1852.  And boredom has been more and more in our daily speech every since.  And more and more dreaded.  Its origins may include the work of a drill, a hole-boring tool, which methodically and without excitement produces a hole in a material.  And so the piece of wood is 'bored' by the drill.

Which brings us back to the nuns of Regina Laudis, who gathered this midday and gave praise to God in sung psalmody for some twenty minutes in gentle Latin.  To some, I suppose, that gathering itself might seem boring.  But underneath the chant melodies, below the syllables of the words of Scripture, deep within the daily round of ora et labora that characterizes the daily life of the sisters as it does Benedictines around the world, it may well be that the finger of God is boring a hole through the hearts and minds and souls, through the humanity of the women who make up that monastic community.  Day by day, hour by hour, syllable by syllable, they are making themselves available to the work of the Sculptor who bores where humans in their freedom allow, and there creates Christs who live and teach and love and pray and offer themselves every day for the love of this crazed thing that the rest of us call the real world.  

Only the end of time will reveal where reality really kept its house.

A sweet addendum: as prayer ended today in the Chapel at Bethlehem, one of the adults accompanying brother and sister looked toward the nuns praying beyond the altar, behind the grill (a kind of rood screen) and beautifully noted, "We serve Jesus on this side, and they serve Jesus on that side."  In Jesus then there is just one side.  And when we pray together, it is all 'real.'

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Strangers on a Plane

Suffering and compassion. Humanity and divinity are found right in there.


There are really two types of people when it comes to airplanes: there are the talkers, and then those who would rather get a root canal than socialize with the person seated next to them.

Admittedly, I am the latter. Earbuds in, sunglasses on – I am a fortress. I am simultaneously praying for a) the plane not to go down, and b) my seat mate to not try to drum up small talk. Priorities, right?


But I love flying, I really do. Riding in an airplane is always a bit of an adventure. You never know who you’ll be sitting by, and for a couple hours, you’re completely out of control, and unplugged.


I was flying back to Ohio today from New York. And there are always a lot of emotions, seeing the intimidating city skyline of Manhattan slowly morph into the lush and fertile Ohio River valley…

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“I am here.”

Sermon written for July 2, 2017; Church of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Shoreham NY

Preached sermon streamlined!

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 10:40-42
Genesis 22:1-14

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

“O my father, am I really to go with you?

And help you with the sacrifice to the Lord?

You’ve never taken me before, and I’ve always wanted to go.

Why do you weep, Mother? We won’t be long.

I’m growing up, now, and it is right that I go with Father.
Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
Father, what are you doing? Father —

Father, how can the Lord want me? I am only a child.

How can you worship a Lord who wants your child?

Father, there is terrible laughter in the air like thunder.

You are not my father. I am afraid of you.

I will close my eyes. This rock is hard and cold against my bones.

This rock is. . .
Father. I heard thunder again.

You are untying the ropes which cut my skin.

You are laughing and crying, and the ram in the bush

is waiting with frightened eyes.

He does not understand, either.”
(Madeleine L’Engle, Sacrifice of Isaac)

[Caravaggio (or Cavarozzi), 1598-1603]

Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, Sacrifice of Isaac, painful to read, painful to hear, bears witness to the struggle of almost numberless generations to take in and bear with, if not to comprehend, the story we hear today from the 22nd chapter of the book of Genesis.  
What is this? God’s chosen, Abraham, bidden by the God who has called him and given him the promised son in Isaac, to take that son to a remote mountain and there to end his son’s life with his own hands, by violence. Sarah, the unlikely mother of Isaac, left back at home, old and approaching death; left to mourn the unthinkable loss she is about to sustain. The loss of her son. The loss of relationship with her husband. And God’s chosen, Isaac, the son of laughter, surrounded now only by tears. The tears of his brokenhearted mother. The tears of his father, torn in two by this test. And Isaac’s own tears. How could the boy, as L’Engle’s poem brings forward, possibly understand what was happening there on Mount Moriah?
And for that matter, how can we understand?
Rabbi Steven Nathan wrote a five-poem set on this terrible text; one poem each in the voice of Isaac, of Sarah, of Abraham, of God, and of the Rabbi himself, standing in our place. They are powerful and heart-rending and do not spare us a moment of the fullness of the truth, and I commend them all to your reading. But we, here, on this Independence weekend, are called painfully to realize that in the end, for the people God created, there is no absolute independence. There is ultimately only relationship. There is only ultimately relying on one another. In the end there is only trust, no matter what the cost. And this is nothing less than frightening.  
I have to cry out to you the Rabbi’s poem, the fifth and last one on the Binding of Isaac, written in his own voice, and so in ours:
V. What About Me

Why Who What

I do not Understand

Why I should Care to

They are 



I pity them

Sacrificing son and self


Sitting in silence

Enabling the plot


Risking all

For what



Needing to know

The Truth

Even if 

It kills

Leave me alone

I do not want

To know you

I must

I do

For you are all


I am all

Of you


I refuse to believe

This Truth
I would not


For any God
I would not abandon

The miracle child

I never thought

Would be
I would not

Risk my life

To prove 

My love
I would not


The unaskable

Of those 

I claim



To serve

My needs

Would I
Have I

Will I


Don’t we all


I refuse

To believe

With complete faith




I know

With complete faith 

How could it not







Part of life

For all

For God

Our image source
We God

Do not want 

to cause 


we still do

We God

Do not want

To know 

The limits


Faith love

We still do

We God

Do not want

To give up

The self

The ideal

To find

The truth


We still do

We God

Do not want

To sit

Passive inactive


The plot

To unfold

Before our eyes

Within our heart

Unable to

Stop it

We still do


Must this be


Can it not

Be simple

Why can

There be

No pain

No test

No sacrifice

No surrender






Would not


Without these

We would be


Without laughter

Never able to leave

Staying at his tent

Welcoming guests

Never going


Comfortable borders


Her precious possession

Never letting him




Not knowing

How far

Each of us

Will go


Each of us

Will do

To surrender 


Divine will

To continue

The story

Of creation

I do not like them

I love them

For I know 


I know

Their actions


A part of



A part of


With all this






The plan



When we


That everything


Is indeed


Of the plan
As long

As we realize

We are


We are


Of something greater

Not apart

By Our Selves

We may experience


But suffering

Will stay


This is

What God

What they

Are trying to teach
I still

Don’t like 

The players

I still

Don’t like

The plot



I watch it


Within and around

I see

Their traits in me
Through the


I know

There is something


I must

I wish

There were






God, God’s Word, do not always make it easy on us. As one of our eucharistic prayers says it so well, we do not come here for solace only, but also for strength. And how we need it. How we need it when we touch upon the mystery, the third rail of faith. I would like, as I think you would, to remain nearer the surface. Let me concentrate on the painting of the building behind me, on the questions of dollars and cents that face us, on the practical stuff. No matter how hard that might get, that stuff does not insist on diving deep inside us and tearing us up like this word of God from the very first book of the Bible. This is the Scripture that moves us to put our hands gently over the childrens’ ears. 

 Who is this God who says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And who is this Abraham who “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.” And who is this Isaac, this boy who says in trust of the father he loves, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” as he carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own shoulders.  
This is so far beyond paint and dollars, beyond the everyday (thank God!) that we want to run. But if we are going to be here at all, the starting place necessarily is to let this story cause us to shudder and to shake. As have these two poets and their two poems.
In the extraordinary 6th chapter of his letter to the Church at Rome today, Paul the Apostle insists on something that doesn’t ring well in our 21st century ears. He insists: you have to be servant to something or someone in life. He even says ‘slave’ instead of servant; even harder to hear. You can be slave to sin, Paul writes, and follow it to lasting death. Or you can be slave to God, and follow God to lasting life. Early in today’s reading from Romans there are words that might shed light into the darkness of Mount Moriah, where Abraham went as the slave of God to offer up his son, and where at last the voice of God cried out, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him . . . .” Paul’s words are these: “. . . present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life . . . .” (Romans 6:13)
Present yourselves to God as God’s servants, trusting beyond all rationality that God, by whatever horrific twists and turns on the way, will only lead those who follow along the way to life. The road to life, as Jesus knew and Paul preached, goes through the country of death along the way. So present yourselves to God as those brought, carried, moved, taken from death to life.  
But how? How do I ‘present’ myself to God? How do you? How, in the midst of full lives, do we find God, or better, allow God to find us? How, when we might rather not get into the deep ‘heart’ stuff where God deals, bring ourselves around to stop and allow the encounter with God, which is more real than anything else, to happen?
Look in the three verses of Matthew’s Gospel that we hear today. Six times in those few lines rings one word: Welcome. Welcome welcome welcome welcome welcome. Welcome.
We present ourselves to God by welcoming God into our everyday lives, with both reverence and fear, as well as faith and love. And we welcome God in the way Abraham welcomed all those whom he loved. Three times in the story of the binding of Isaac, someone calls Abraham’s name. The first and third times it is God who calls. The central time it is Abraham’s son Isaac who calls. And each of the three times, Abraham readily responds with one word in his own tongue, Hineni.
“Here I am.” “I am right here.”
There is depth in this single word. To his God and to his son, each crying out to him, Abraham replies as their servant: “I am here. I am here with you. I am here for you. I am for you.” In this way, Abraham presents himself to God and his son Isaac. In this way, Abraham welcomes them into his life, even in this moment of pain and drama. Learn the word and use it: Hineni.
There are echoes of Abraham’s ‘hineni’ in the traditional greeting offered by the Natal people of Africa to one another when they meet one another along the way. When they meet, one says, Sawa Bona, “I see you.” And the other responds, Sikhona, “I am here.” Between those greetings they pause, and for a long period, look into one another’s eyes in silence. Then they speak the words again, now trading places, “I see you.” “I am here.”
There along African byways the Natal are presenting themselves to one another. They are welcoming one another. And not in shallow fashion. In those words, sawa bona and sikhona, they are deeply acknowledging one another’s existence, humanity, uniqueness, and importance. They are doing what Abraham did on that continent generations and generations earlier, “Hineni dear God! Hineni my son! I am here with you. I am here for you.”  
Those tribesmen and Paul the Apostle are pointing us in the direction of who we are called to be and what we are called to do in relationship to God and to each other. Through every ordinary day, and in moments as horribly extraordinary as the binding of Isaac, we are called to be people who welcome the full reality of God and one another into our lives. We are called to be people who trust in God and in the people of God no matter what is asked of us or how difficult it is to understand. We are called to be women and men who rise each day to say in our words and by our deeds to God and to all our brothers and sisters, “Whatever this day asks of me and whatever you may need of me, I present myself to you. I welcome you. I see you. I am here for you. I am here.”
This Independence Day weekend, as we give thanks for all that we have been given in this land and in its history, God’s unrelenting word powerfully declares that we are free for the sake of one another. We are free to be blessing to one another. We are free to encourage one another through life’s painful visits to Mount Moriah, to support one another when God asks a lot of us. We are free to remind one another that we are servants of God and to unite with one another as the presence of the living Christ in our time and place.
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)
John P. McGinty