The Gift of Daily Rhythm

alarm clock

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Monks pray. They chant psalms and canticles to give God glory. [Spanish]

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Nurses in hospitals see to their patients’ medications. Make notes. Change shifts.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Worksite managers drink coffee out of big tumblers and plan, supervise, order equipment and materials. Chew the fat with customers, architects, engineers. Talk football.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Rehab patients and nursing-home residents contend with their aches, their pains, and their loneliness. They await their meals, their p.t. and o.t., their baths or showers, and their meds. They tune into their tv shows. They hope someone will sign-up for a social-distanced visit. Maybe they read their Bibles and pray.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Students arise, eat cereal or pop-tarts, maybe stress-out about the homework they haven’t done. They get on the computer and try to learn something remotely. They get called-on via Zoom. They get bored. They turn off the camera and fall asleep.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Depressed people suffer, suffer–with every tick-tock minute poking the scalp like sixty little needles, one second after another. Landscape workers sweat in the sun, dirt grinding into the skin of their fingers. At Waffle House, they sling the hash; at Mickey D’s they drop the fries. Truck drivers look through the windshield down the highway and plan their next bathroom/coffee stop. The unemployed wait in agony for e-mails to come.

How could we get through life without the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms? This year with a pandemic has broken our rhythms–which makes us appreciate all the more whatever rhythms we can manage to have. The bishop broke my rhythm pretty badly. Thank you, Lord, for sending me work to do.

The rhythm that makes the passage of time endurable always involves some kind of work. Work makes time a friend, an ally, a partner. On the other hand: when you’re idle, time becomes a mud patch, an enemy, a dark confusing cloud of frustrated non-possibilities.

At Holy Mass tomorrow, we will read the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. What exactly does this parable teach? The main lesson is: the owner of the vineyard is generous. “I am generous,” he said.

We earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. We get to sleep the sound sleep of the just by working hard, from dawn to dusk. But did we earn these brows, upon which we sweat? Did we earn these hands we use? Do we receive 24 hours every day because we pre-paid for their delivery?

No. A huge gift came first. We have what it takes to build up a rhythm of life because God gave us us. The idea that I deserve even to exist: that idea is the gravest enemy my spiritual life can have. If I start kidding myself that I somehow gave myself the morning sun; if I start tallying all the benefits and perks that my illustrious efforts deserve, then I run a grave risk. I will find myself standing there with just one little denarius in my hand at the end of the day. When I frown, the Lord will ask me, “Are you envious because I am generous? I have paid you fairly.”

The vineyard owner in the parable was rich, rich in a higher order of magnitude than the laborers he hired. The owner did not deal in loose change. The standard wage for a day’s labor was a denarius. The owner didn’t have any smaller coins. All the workers got the same pay, whether they started at dawn or at 5pm.

The owner did not think twice about it, because a denarius was loose change to him. He needed able-bodied workers in his vineyard, for however many hours he could have them, as many workers as he could find. He had a lot of ripe grapes to pull from the vines.

Some people live in run-down double-wides, and some live in mansions with wall-to-wall carpet and tropical fish tanks. Who really deserves either one? And, in the end, what difference does it make? I could fight all my life to win the esteem of men, to consume daily gourmet meals, to rack-up professional accomplishments and little performance-review trophies. I will still die as naked as I was born.

God gives me today. For free. We will all die wretched and miserable deaths unless we spend the rest of our lives trying to grasp this one simple fact. God gives. God gives the dawn. And 9am. And noon. And 3pm. And the evening.

He gives it all, to everyone, every day, freely.

Death and Magpies

Lord Jesus told His beloved disciples exactly what would happen.

Christ had come to the world to give us the love of God, to teach true religion, to restore the friendship between man and the Creator. And the tinpot dictators of Jerusalem hated every minute of it.

silver-bill-finchJesus told the disciples: The petty, worldling rulers of Jerusalem would kill Him. Cruelly, unjustly. Mocking Him and spitting in His face. He told the disciples that He would die like a low-life criminal, right in front of the their eyes, in a sudden hailstorm of human brutality.

And yet, when it all came to pass just as He had said, the disciples freaked out. Like a twittering finches and magpies in a tree.

Did the Son of God ever promise us an easy life? Did He ever say: “Take it light. You will face no difficulties. Everything will be cushy till you retire. Then, I will make death optional?”

Like I said a couple weeks ago, Lent can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But another thing it definitely means, in and of itself: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. God Himself faced squarely that fact that He was to die in the flesh. Not prettily; death never comes wrapped in a doily. He faced it, and so must we. We will die, and all the worldly things we grasp at now will seem like just so much straw at that moment.

Praised be the Lord, Christ has endless patience with us. The episode from the gospel we read at Holy Mass today–which is a fixture of our Lents together, since we always read the account of the ambition of the sons of Zebedee exactly two weeks after Ash Wednesday–this passage shows us the indefatigable, loving, fatherly patience of Christ.

memento-moriFirst, the sons let their mother do the talking for them. Christ patiently let that pass. Then, they wanted grandeur in exchange for their allegiance to Him. But Christ saw through that, and He knew that they did, in fact, love Him. So He promised them a share in His Passover, while quietly side-stepping the question of who takes precedence among the Apostles.

Then the others got all hot and bothered about James’ and John’s secret ambition. But the Lord smoothed that all over. He explained what they all had in common. Namely, not being power-hungry like the Gentiles.

The whole lot of them had altogether missed the cold and purifiying dose of truth that Christ had tried to give them when He told them that ignominious death awaited him, just as it awaited them. They missed that altogether, even though He stated it clearly, in plain Aramaic.

The disciples dithered in utter obtuseness. But Christ did not get angry. He just continued trying to get through to them by gentle and patient instruction.

In their own way, the disciples were really just as obtuse as the chief priests and scibes. Like us. In our own way, we, too, are just as obtuse as the chief priests and scribes, who handed the Prince of Peace over to Pontius Pilate for summary crucifixion.

But the good Lord exercises the same patience with us that He did with His original disciples. We can twitter like magpies and finches, and flit hither and yon, while reality is trying to stare us in the face. The reality of death, which is our passover to a kingdom we can hardly imagine, in which our ideas now about status and precedence will seem utterly laughable.

We flit and twitter. But Christ does not give up on us. He keeps trying to teach us, and wrap us up in His love, all the way to our dying breath.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Rembrandt Laborers in the Vineyard

Let’s imagine a Lebanese vineyard, with vines sagging with grapes for the harvest. The cool mornings of fall have arrived.

The owner of the vineyard has arisen before dawn. He, all his family, and his trusty steward have worked hard through the summer. The good weather has yielded a rich abundance of ripe grapes. Now an enormous amount of work needs doing, in short order. All the grapes must be picked and gathered, pressed, and trod.

So the owner is walking the road to the town square before sunrise. He meets a large group of men who themselves are on their way to the square. In the dim light, the owner stops the men and offers them the customary wage for a day’s work.

The owner hopes these men will work hard, and they do—but not quite as hard as he imagined they would. So, when the time comes for the workers’ first break of the day, the owner marches down the road again, to the square.

Continue reading “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard”

The Way the Messiah Messiahs

Today we read the famous gospel passage about the ambitious Apostles. We have previously reflected on the fact that we can hardly condemn James and John for their ambition, nor their mother for hers. What James and John wanted, and what their mother wanted for them, is what we all want: to be close to Christ and to reign with Him forever.

christ-weepingBoth of the Zebedee brothers were, after all, preferred by Christ. He chose them to ascend Mt. Tabor with Him and to enter the Garden of Gethsemane, too. And their mother, to her credit, presumed in her request that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah and the king of heaven.

Where everybody fell short—mother, sons, and the other disciples, as well—was in this: They did not like to listen to Jesus when He explained the hard truth, the inevitable facts of the divine plan, the actual way of salvation.

You believe that I am the Messiah? Good—because I am. Know this: the Messiah does His Messiahing by sorrow and suffering. The Messiah walks the earth as a pilgrim of death. Yes, I eat and drink; I befriend all; I reject nothing wholesome and human as I trod this path of death. But all of it, I will let go. All of this folderol which preoccupies you is really just straw that will be burned in an oven.

If you are at-home in this world, you are not with Me. Only one path leads to the place prepared for Me by My Father; there is only one road the Christ of God can take: rejection, mockery, scourges and spittle, my Body treated like a wooden warning sign and nailed to a tree. Then: the silent tomb.

You want to reign with me? Good. Your faith is true. There is no eternal kingdom but Mine. You will sit at my right and left. My throne is the cross. To get to my kingdom you have to hang on it and die.