Thirteenth Sunday of the Year – July 2, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
It is an old practice, encouraged by wise spiritual directors for centuries, that we try to choose from the Scripture readings of a day or a week some phrase, even a single word, that we might use as a focus of our attention and reflection. Monks have practiced this as part of what is called the lectio divina, a slow meditative reading of the Scriptures. If at a certain point in your reading you are struck by a word, an expression, a turn of phrase, then, they tell us, you should stop your reading and pause over the word and start repeating it; if you are alone, in private, they even recommend that you say it out loud. When you can say the word aloud, you have three senses involved: your sight in reading the word; your tongue in pronouncing it; your ear in hearing it. One of the spiritual authors spoke of it as like a cow’s chewing her cud. Cows ruminate, but so do we in reflective moments, when we chew over something in our minds and hearts.
These authors had a profound sense of the providence of God, and saw God’s hand in the sudden interest, sense of surprise, sense of wonder, that might come, unexpected, unplanned, in the course of one’s meditative reading, and they urged you to stop at the point, not to feel you had to get a certain number of pages read, or spend a certain amount of time in your duty, but to stop and to listen, while you ruminate, for what God may be telling you in this word, in this phrase. It’s a good practice, and I recommend it also for your listening to the word of God at the liturgy. As you listen to the Scriptures, listen for such a word, such a phrase. Expect to find something to chew over, and often as not, you will hear it. Then during the day, and throughout the week, call it to mind, and chew on it again.
Take a phrase like the one in our first reading: “God did not make death, and takes no delight in the destruction of the living.” “God did not make death.” “God did not make death.” “God did not make death.” What kind of death is it talking about? Well, surely not the physical death of plants or animals: plants die so that antelope can live, and antelope die so that cheetahs can live. That kind of death is part of the order of the universe God made and even contributes to its beauty. The world would be less lovely if there were no antelopes, and no cheetahs.
So not that kind of death. Perhaps our own physical death, then? This draws us closer, not so much in the sense that such death is not also part of the rhythm of our physical existence, but in the sense that we appear to be the only creatures that know they must die, and that there is a this-ought-not-to-be character about human death. It is the shattering of our existence: the separation of soul and body, the philosophers and theologians call it, a separation which we feel because our distinct being is that of embodied spirits, animated bodies, and death dissolves us.
But that death often enough becomes the symbol of another kind of death: of the kind of dissolution that is our alienation: our alienation from ourselves–we are not the persons we ought to be and would like to be; our alienation from others–estrangement, our becoming strange to one another; our alienation from God–a sense of being adrift in the world, anchor-less, rudderless. Those are experiences of death, too, of a dissolution that ought-not-to-be.
“God did not make death and takes no delight in the destruction of the living.” “God did not make death and takes no delight in destruction.” As you reflect, perhaps other biblical phrases come to mind: “Do I desire the death of the sinner,” says the Lord, “and not rather that he change his ways and live?” “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” And the Psalmist speaks for us: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” And Paul: “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” “For me to live is Christ” and “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And already Moses, in words that still move us: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him.”