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Works of Mercy, Psalms, and Resurrection

For many centuries we have had the Stations of the Cross. Artist Mary Ellen Rouen has created the Stations of the Light (the Resurrection) in clay. They are found in this article and at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston.

Mark’s surgery last spring was an inspiration to us in faith and a sense of God’s providence. We had hesitated for some time to proceed with an operation that he needed, but it was recommended.

We worried about Mark’s heart, because it often beats very strongly, even shaking the bed. It flutters enough to get our attention. We kept consulting with our family doctor, who himself at the time had had the same surgery. We had doubts because of Mark’s age. Surgery is more of a risk when one is older. Then an eighty-year old volunteer, Mary Ann Bass, told us she had just had two surgeries with no problem. That sounded encouraging.

We didn’t have enough help at the men’s house of hospitality. There was too much work to do. Who could take food to the day laborers if Mark was out? Who could take sick men to the hospital? Who could help connect workers with employers for our co-op? What would we do? Bob and Ruth Kleeman came forward to live and volunteer in our houses for a few weeks to help our other Catholic Workers.

When the operation was finally scheduled, we worried, but especially we prayed. Mark was trying to attend daily Mass (it is so easy to be interrupted and delayed). Two days before the surgery, he went to confession. By this time, he was very peaceful about whatever might happen, stating that this time of preparation put life in a deeper perspective. He was thanking God for a good life. Louise mentioned that there was still much to do in the Lord’s vineyard, in the Works of Mercy at Casa Juan Diego. Mark acknowledged that, but was at peace with whatever might take place.

In Rosario, Argentina, where we assist a former guest who is ill, the whole parish community and Bishop José Luis were praying that Mark’s surgery would be successful.

At the last minute, the day surgery place required a new EKG and blood work before the surgery could be performed. We sort of hoped that the cardiologist would say no to the surgery, that we should not do it. But he said he thought the heart would be fine.

And so, after a long delay, the day arrived. On the morning of the surgery, Louise followed the custom of Dorothy Day and St. Francis of opening the Bible at random and reading the verses. When she opened the book, hoping for inspiration, the page showed Psalm 41. What encouraging words! The words warmed her heart and she shared them with Mark:

“Blessed is he who considers the poor!

The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble;

the Lord protects him and keeps him alive;

he is called blessed in the land;

thou dost not give him up to the will of his enemies.

The Lord sustains him on his sick bed;

in his illness thou healest all his infirmities.”

After reading that Psalm we went to the surgery filled with hope.

It Went Well

Soon after surgery the surgeon came to tell Louise that all had gone well. He warned that Mark would not feel like doing anything for a while and should not do anything but rest, although he could walk around as much as he liked. They sent him home an hour after the surgery. He did rest for a couple of days. However, two days later, as soon as the anesthesia wore off and he stopped taking pain medicine, he was working on the correspondence and banking for Casa Juan Diego. Soon he made his appearance among the guests, so that they would know he was still alive.

More recently, Mark had cataract surgery. We were more relaxed.

The Psalms

Reading that Psalm before surgery reminded us how the Psalms express so well our feelings and concerns, our ups and downs as we relate to God and try to understand our day-to-day existence.

The consolation of that experience reminded us  again of the richness of the Psalms, prayed by Catholics (and other Christians), around the world every day, as a part of the Mass and the Hours of the Divine Office.

The Catholic Worker also has a long tradition of praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

Benedict XVI on Gethsemane and the Psalms

All of this came especially to mind again recently as Lent began.

Houston, Texas, has recently become the center of the new Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. The church building of Our Lady of Walsingham has been given to Anglicans entering the Catholic Church. St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston is now the center for their theological studies for the United States.

The newly installed head of the Ordinariate, Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson,, recently said in an interview with Catholic News Service that he was very grateful for Pope Benedict’s two volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, and especially the chapter on Gethsemane in the second volume :

“As a theologian I would say that in Jesus of Nazareth part 2, [Ignatius Press] his chapter on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is probably the most extra-ordinary piece of theology of our time. It’s astonishingly adventuresome. I mean, he opens up doors that, I don’t know, it just took my breath away…. ”

We were challenged by Msrg. Steenson’s words to read that Gethsemane chapter. We already had the book, which our granddaughter had given to us as a gift. As we read, we saw that it begins with an account of Jesus and his disciples, steeped in the Jewish tradition and worship, singing the Psalms of Israel at the Last Supper.

This gathering of the early Church prayed and sang the Psalms. We love picturing Jesus and the apostles singing the Psalms. We wonder, what kind of voice did Jesus and the apostles have? It would be great to sing the same songs and Psalms with Jesus and the apostles. Imagine knowing something about Jesus’ singing voice.

In the great works of art, we never see Jesus depicted as singing the Psalms. We see him suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he recalled the Psalms with the disciples. We see him being scourged. We see paintings of him on the Cross. But we have not seen him singing. We have not seen in art that common recitation of the Psalms with the disciples, which took place in the garden of Gethsamene before Jesus’ prayed alone throughout that dark night.

Benedict XVI argues that as Jesus prays the Psalms with his disciples, “this element is fundamental for understanding the Psalms themselves, which in him could be said to acquire a new subject, a new mode of presence, and an extension beyond Israel into universality.” Christ himself becomes present in the Psalms:

“We see a new version of the figure of David emerging here. In the canonical Psalter, David is regarded as the principal author of the Psalms. He thus appears as the one who leads and inspires the prayer of Israel, who sums up all of Israel’s sufferings and hopes, carries them within himself, and expresses them in prayer. So Israel can continue praying with David, expressing itself in the Psalms, which constantly offer new hope, however deep the surrounding darkness.

“In the early Church, Jesus was immediately hailed as the new David, and so the Psalms could be recited in a new way—yet without discontinuity—as prayer in communion with Jesus Christ.”

The Holy Father speaks of the fidelity of Jesus to tradition, the Jewish tradition, and yet the utter novelty of his reinterpretation of the tradition, illustrated in his praying of the Psalms. The unity of the two Testaments is taught to us by Jesus himself. One aspect of this newness in tradition, the Pope tells us, is the reinterpretation of the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments] given in the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes become the heart of the new Law.

Watch, Do Not Fall Asleep

As Jesus prays alone after the communal prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, he asks the disciples to pray and watch with him, saying in the words of Psalm 43, “My soul is very sorrowful even to death.”

The Lord calls the apostles to vigilance, but instead they succumb to sleep in the face of what appears to be an impending tragedy and injustice.

As the apostles were repeatedly overcome by sleep, so it happens with us, the later followers of Jesus.

Benedict XVI writes: “Across the centuries, it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the Evil One. Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the Evil One at work in the world and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth. In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self-satisfaction of its own comfortable existence.”

Another aspect of the way we all often fail, another classic temptation for Christians, is to simply rely on our own resources. We remember the story some years ago of the bishop who, seeking direction, complained to his spiritual director about all he had to do and how he couldn’t keep up with everything. He was overwhelmed. His spiritual director suggested that he add an hour to his prayer each day. Even though this would take more time, with the perspective of faith, he would have plenty of time and solutions could be found.

Benedict XVI points out that relying on his own resources was even a problem for the first pope. In the recounting of the stories of Peter in the Gospels, Peter was unable even to hear Jesus’ prophecy of the Resurrection. It was hard at that time for him to understand the vision, although he wanted to do everything to help Jesus:

“He only registers the reference to death and dispersal, and this prompts him to declare his unshakable courage and his radical fidelity to Jesus. Because he wants to bypass the Cross, he cannot accept the Resurrection…he would like the victory without the Cross. He is relying on his own resources.”

Jesus’ Prayer

During that terrible night in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for many hours. The Holy Father speaks of his “terror before the abyss of nothingness.” expressed in the Gospels in terms reminiscent of Psalm 43:5…. He describes the horror and fear “felt by him who is Life itself before the abyss of the full power of destruction, evil, and enmity with God that is now unleashed upon him, that he now takes directly upon himself….”

“Because he is the Son, he sees with total clarity the whole foul flood of evil, all the power of lies and pride, all the wiles and cruelty of the evil that masks itself as life yet constantly serves to destroy, debase, and crush life…: the vast power of sin and death. All this he must take into himself, so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him….”

Through his cries, his tears, and his prayers Jesus “holds up to God the anguish of human existence…

“The Cross itself has become God’s glorification, the glory of God made manifest in the love of the Son”, and the transformation of death into life. Death is conquered and “new life comes to us.”

The Resurrection

In a recent blog, Fr. Robert Imbelli recommended a paper on the meaning of the Resurrection presented at a conference in Rome by Anglican theologian N. T. Wright.

At the conference entitled “Jesus our Contemporary,” Wright corrects the impression given by the deists of the “Enlightenment” that God is distant, detached and unable to act within the world, and presents instead a sense of the mystery of God who is “present and active within the world in a thousand ways, some of them dramatic and unexpected.”

He makes suggestions about the response of the church (both Catholic and Protestant) to Enlightenment and skeptical view of the Resurrection:

“The church has often been content to do two things side by side: first, to ‘prove’ the resurrection by more or less rationalistic argument; second to say that therefore ‘Jesus is alive today, and we can get to know him’, or perhaps also, ‘therefore Jesus is the second person of the Trinity’. One also frequently hears, especially in Easter sermons, ‘Jesus has been raised, therefore we too are going to heaven.'”

Wright says that this is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. He suggests that we go to the early sources, to the Scriptures, to see what the response of the first Christians was to the Resurrection. His reflections from the witnesses in the Gospel give us a renewed image of Jesus’ kingdom and what we are asked to do to help to bring it about.

“Of course, to our secular contemporaries it makes no sense to suggest that Jesus is in charge of the world, and has been since Easter. Most people look at the continuation of violence, deceit and chaos over the last two thousand years and say it’s ridiculous to say that Jesus is in charge.

“But when we read the gospels we get a different sense. Think of the Beatitudes, not primarily as offering a blessing to those who are described, but through them to the world.

“This is how Jesus wants to run the world: by calling people to be peacemakers, gentle, lowly, hungry for justice. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the pure in heart, those who weep for the world’s sorrows and ache for its wrongs. And by the time the power-brokers notice what’s going on, Jesus’ followers have set up schools and hospitals, they have fed the hungry and cared for the orphans and the widows. That’s what the early church was known for, and it’s why they turned the world upside down. In the early centuries the main thing that emperors knew about bishops was that they were always taking the side of the poor.”

Jesus’ followers are asked to work in this way, also.

To Continue His Work

Wright reflects on the earliest encounters with Jesus after the Resurrection:  “The church was born as Mary, Peter, and John ran to and fro in the half-light, half-believing and with tears and questions. The church was born at the moment when the two disciples at Emmaus recognized the stranger as he broke the loaf. The church was born as the angel told Jesus’ followers to hurry to Galilee because he was already on his way there…. And all of this in service of the mission of the kingdom. Something has happened in the Resurrection because of which Jesus is now the challenging contemporary not only of his first followers, but of the whole world.”

When Jesus appeared to the disciples, including Peter who had promised that he would always stand by Jesus and then denied him three times at the most difficult moment, he does not rebuke Peter, but rather asks him to feed his lambs, feed his sheep. This dialogue indicates that Jesus forgives Peter, but he does not stop there. The question, “Do you love me?” shows his forgiveness; it is immediately followed by the request to continue his work in the world, with the people. As Wright points out, the Resurrection is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one.

Wright also emphasizes Paul, whose encounter with the risen Jesus had been very dramatic after his persecution of Christians:

He says that one of the most remarkable verses in I Corinthians 15 is verse 58, “where Paul doesn’t say ‘therefore enjoy the presence of Christ’, though he might have done, or ‘therefore look forward to your glorious future’, though he might have said that as well. He says ‘therefore get on with your work in the present, because in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ That is at the heart of the meaning of the resurrection…”

Jesus asks us to continue his work in the world and respond with the Works of Mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, taking in those who have no home, visiting the prisoner….

We, who centuries later face the forces of darkness and evil, are given hope and the possibility of continuing the work because of the power of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

At times the Works of Mercy can be tiring, or even overwhelming. Catholic Workers (and others) may not feel like getting up at 4 a.m. to take someone who is ill to the hospital or respond to emergency needs at whatever hour, or feel up to taking in the tears of the suffering people who come to us. Even more frustrating are the injustices that affect the people in what often appears to be willful oppression of the poor in the process of obtaining more and more wealth for corporations.

All of this can be taken up in our praying of the Psalms, giving us a deeper understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection, and give us renewed strength and inspiration to continue the Lord’s work in the world. As N. T. Wright puts it: “Every cup of cold water, every tiny prayer, every confrontation with the bullies who oppress the poor, every song of praise or dance of joy, every work of art and music –nothing is wasted. The resurrection will reaffirm it, in ways we cannot begin to imagine, as part of God’s new world.”

In Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, Pope Benedict VI explains the manner of the Resurrection:

“…having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of his disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our hearts to him.

“And yet, is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love.

“If we attend to the witnesses with listening hearts and open ourselves to the signs by which the Lord again and again authenticates both them and himself, then we know that he is truly risen. He is alive. Let us entrust ourselves to him, knowing that we are on the right path.”

Houston Catholic Worker, March-May 2012.