Monday, October 24, 2011

The Ends of the Earth

Jesus told his disciples, “You will bear witness for me in Jerusalem, and all over Judea and Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The ends of the earth. The preaching of the Gospel began in Jerusalem and within a generation, churches had been formed throughout the Roman Empire: throughout the Holy Land, across the northern coast of Africa, throughout what is now Turkey, over into Greece, certainly in Rome. Before long the Gospel had spread as far west as Spain and the British Isles. By the end of the first millennium it had covered all of Europe including Scandinavia.

In the sixteenth century as Europeans began to explore and make homes in the New World, the Gospel came to the eastern parts of North America. In the eighteenth century Franciscans under Father Junipero Serra established missions in Mexico and eventually moved northward into what is now the State of California. They built missions approximately one day’s journey apart, from San Diego up beyond San Francisco.

In the meantime, the Gospel had also moved eastward from Jerusalem. Armenia became the first officially Christian nation. Ancient traditions tell how the Gospel came into India. It moved into Russia and crossed the vast spread of that country. In the eighteenth century the Gospel came into Alaska and began to move down the western coast of North America.

About 1833, 1,800 years after the Day of Pentecost, not far from what is now Fort Bragg, California, Russian Orthodox missionaries coming south from Alaska met Franciscan missionaries coming north. The Gospel had circled the globe, and “the ends of the earth” turned out to be California.

“All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God” (Psalm 98:4b).

Monday, October 10, 2011


For many years, on the first Sunday of each month I have presided at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This service of pure worship contains a space of silent adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. As the years have passed, I have come more and more to find immense solace and peace as I gaze upon the consecrated Host.

Jesus gave the Church the command to celebrate what later came to be called the Mass and to receive Holy Communion. The faithful quickly discerned that Jesus is truly and objectively present in the consecrated Bread and Wine. Eventually there developed devotions to Jesus in the Sacrament apart from the Mass. One of the most moving and beautiful is the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The consecrated Host is placed before the faithful in a monstrance, a decorated stand with a glass display case for the Host.

Jesus taught, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

Considering this passage, I am reminded of the story of Saint Jean Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, who noted that there was a little French farmer who visited his chapel every day at about noon. After a while the Cure became curious as to what the farmer was doing in the chapel. One day he decided to ask him. The farmer responded that he came in to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. His style of prayer was simple. He said, “I just look at him, and he looks back at me.”

It sounds so simple, but in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament I have come to see the profound reality of what the French farmer tried to explain: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

When one gazes upon the host, on the one hand, one can see only a wafer of unleavened bread. On the other, by faith one may gaze upon that which is most beautiful. In adoration, there is no sense of time passing. As I kneel before the monstrance I am altered, and can even feel my face change its expression in response to what I see, discern, and feel.

Recently as I was drawn to the Beloved and allowed myself simply to look with adoration, I noted the various changes in my countenance that washed over and through me. Without plan or will, they simply moved through me, passing easily from one to the other, in the order below. I felt:


There was the rapture of feeling my entire self lifted up, almost swelled with delight, for I knew that what I saw was close to the vision of God himself, the creator and source of all that is beautiful. “Look upon him and be radiant” (Psalm 34:5).


Joy moved to awe at what I was discerning. “Please show me your glory,” begged Moses of God (Exodus 33:18), who responded, “My face you cannot see, for no human being can see me and survive” (Exodus 33:20b). Yet he allowed Moses to see a part of his glory (Exodus 33:21-23). Primitive and anthropomorphic as this narrative is, it contains an essence of profound truth that I find even more moving than the theophany at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-6).


“Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Awe led me quickly to a sense of my unworthiness to see such beauty and glory; I was overwhelmed by the immensity of what was before my face, as if a passage to infinity had been opened in the ordinariness of the day.


"When Simon saw the miracle of the great draft of fish, he fell on his knees before Jesus and said, Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Unworthiness led quickly to penitence, the realization that I am a sinner.

Receiving Love

An assurance of being loved followed upon my penitence and overrode a sense of unworthiness. Anglican priest George Herbert wrote a poem called “Love bade me welcome”. Its first line is, Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin. The theme of the poem is that though one is indeed unworthy to be a guest at the banquet of Love, yet Love Himself bids you to be seated. When love is offered so firmly and unhesitatingly after one sees and acknowledges one’s unworthiness, then the love is life-changing.


Having received that welcoming love, which at first was uncomfortable, without any sense of hurry I felt the contentment of the present moment, resting comfortably in the presence of the Beloved. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11a).


Eventually, the enjoyment of being in the presence of the Presence moved me gradually from simple contentment to a desire and longing for more. I knew that “once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with” (1 Corinthians 13:10), and that the Blessed Sacrament, glorious as it is, is still a “veil”, a mediated thing by which Jesus comes to those who love him. “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory” (Psalm 63:1-2).


I moved from longing to a vision of its eventual fulfillment: “The city did not need the sun or the moon for light, since it was lit by the radiant glory of God, and the Lamb was a lighted torch for it” (Revelation 21:23). The Blessed Sacrament itself satisfies even as it whets one’s appetite for the banquet of the Kingdom of God.


Finally, I felt hope, the hope that what one sees and longs for now shall have a consummation. The promises of God never fail, and the hope of life eternal with Jesus is a sure and certain hope. “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

And that led me back to Joy. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper in anticipation of the breaking of their band, “I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you” (John 16:22).

All of this can be wrapped up in a quotation from Karl Rahner from his brief essay, “About Sitting Down”. He wrote, “Of course, there are many exercises that lead to quiet and silent resting in oneself, such as the experience ... of deep and pure love between two people... Ultimately, however, there is only one type of stillness that enables a person to be at peace with himself or herself: prayer... Only in the loving being-at-oneness with the infinite mystery we call God can one arrive in such a way that one does not have to go any farther, where one can find rest."

“All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Or “I just look at him, and he looks back at me.”