Monday, June 27, 2011

Wrestling with My Inner Judas

Painting of the risen Jesus in the Cave of Gethsemane
Oh Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas. 

                                     - St. Philip Neri

Ever wonder why the Sanhedrin paid Judas a huge sum of money to simply lead their soldiers to a garden? And just how did Judas know exactly where to go in a garden full of trees to find Jesus?

Many of these sorts of questions were answered on my recent trip to the Holy Land. There were many moments when I exclaimed, "WHAT, that is not what I was taught!" One such moment was when we entered the cave of Gethsemane. That's right, Gethsemane is a cave.

Scripture scholars believe that Jesus' agony was not actually in a garden, as most Christians believe, but rather in a cave nearby where olives were pressed. It is believed that Jesus knew the owner of the cave and he allowed Jesus and his disciples the use of the cave for a meeting place. The early Christians apparently agreed with scholars, as the Cave of Gethsemane was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the third and fourth centuries.

Neither Matthew, Mark or Luke mention a "garden" when they speak of Gethsemane. Rather, they use the Greek words for "property" and "place." John uses a Greek word that means "cultivated piece of land" in the relevant passage but he never conflates it with Gethsemane, just the area around it, which is full of olives trees. Instead, when John describes the disciples entering Gethsemane, he uses the Greek phrase that means "to enter into," which implies that some kind of wall surrounded it. We also see that Jesus “went out” of something within the garden to meet the soldiers (John 18:4).

The Greek word "Gethsemane" also suggests a cave, as it comes from the Aramaic or Hebrew word that means "oil-press." Archaeological excavations have found that the Cave of Gethsemane was used for oil pressing, a typical scenario because the warmth within the cave helped the process of pressing oil. Incidentally, the warmth of the cave is also another reason why Jesus and his disciples were probably staying the evening there on what the apostle John tells us was a cold night (John 18:18).

After recovering from the shock of having to revise my traditional image of Jesus' agony under an olive tree, I began to feel a warmth spread through me as my body reacted to the reality that I was standing in the place where Jesus often met with his disciples and most likely shared intimate teachings. But this was also where he agonized over the sins of humanity and where he was betrayed, and I let this knowledge sink in as I sat in the cave before Mass.

Father John, one of the priests with us on the trip, gave a moving homily. He suggested to us that the bulk of Jesus' suffering took place in Gethsemane. It was here that Jesus felt the weight of all of our sins. Fr. John invited us to enter into this suffering that Jesus felt that night by remembering how we contribute to the pain he felt that night. Even if we think that we are doing well, Fr. John reminded us that we can abandon Jesus at any moment. He told us that St. Philip Neri woke up every day, looked in the mirror and begged God not to let him betray him like Judas. My eyes filled with tears at this moment in the homily as I could immediately empathize with this feeling.

I did not always understand this beautiful sentiment of St. Philip Neri. In the period after my conversion and before I entered formation for religious life, I was astonishingly complacent. I was numb to the ways that I could betray God. I was on the right course, or something close to it, so I easily fell into the belief that I was not so bad, at least in comparison to how I used to be and I could always find others who were not doing as well as I was in the spiritual life.

Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that we cannot ever know others' hearts and we certainly do not know where their souls are ending up for eternity, so this line of thinking does not do much good.  It was not until I leaned closer to the mouth of God and heard what He was really asking of me, that I realized that if I really took my faith seriously, I needed to do more than lead a pretty good life. I needed to follow God's inspirations in every moment, in the big things and the small things.

Now, after beginning the road down religious life, I am much less complacent. I can honestly say that I have the urge to cut and run from God's will for me, in the big and little things, just about every day. Sometimes I give in, sometimes I don't.

An entry in my journal recently shows this wrestling with my inner Judas:
I'm lost, like a kid running around the block with her suitcase. I know I can't really run from your will but I wish I could. I'm just a kid wishing she could make her own plans. Wishing for summer all year long and junk food for dinner. Help me Jesus.

Truly, help me Jesus.

Help us all to realize the depth of our sin, the seriousness of all that we are capable of doing, and the endless possible ways that we may end up contributing to your terrible suffering on that lonely night in Gethsemane.

Save us every day dear Jesus from becoming yet another Judas to you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

153 Fish in the Sea

The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish - Duccio, 14th century
Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.   -  John 21:11
I am without notes for this blog post. So, I will write about my experience at the Sea of Galilee because it was this talk by Tim Gray, our amazing tour leader, to which I paid the least attention. The fault lies squarely with me: there is something about blue water, the wind in my hair and gorgeous scenery that leaves my mind blank and my note-taking hands paralyzed.

During our first days in the Holy Land, my tour group was lucky enough to be in a hotel in Tiberius looking directly out onto the Sea of Galilee. While we were there, I began to understand why Jesus spent so much time in this area. Even with blaring music from waterside discos, light shows, and boats full of late night partyers, the Sea had a mesmerizing peacefulness to it. It was as if no matter what people did, nothing could override the sense of peace that hung in the air. It seemed to exist without people's permission or cooperation. Perhaps this is why, in a world full of chaos and people clamoring for him, the Sea of Galilee was the choice place of escape for Jesus.

During our time in Tiberius, our group took a ride on the Sea of Galilee and Tim talked about Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John when Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time after his resurrection. In the passage, the disciples are fishing. Jesus calls out to them from the shore and tells them to put their net on the right side of the boat. The disciples do not recognize Jesus, but they follow his instructions and Peter pulls up the net bursting with 153 fish. The beloved apostle, John, recognizes Jesus in that moment and Peter, in his characteristic exuberance jumps into the Sea and swims to Jesus.

Scholars have long been baffled by the precision of the number of fish John recorded as caught that day and there are competing theories as to its significance. In his teaching to us, Tim pointed out that Aristotle believed there were 153 species of fish in his time; the idea being that Peter caught all the species of fish and that it is a metaphor for the true Church which is composed of all peoples on the world. Most scholars agree that the number 153 is meant by the apostle John to represent the universal Church. But I wanted to know a little more so I dug a little deeper into the significance of the number 153 and found many fascinating ideas.

Firstly, it is important to realize that the analysis of numbers in Scripture is not always hokey numerology (like the numerology that resulted in Harold Camping's strange prediction that the end of the world would be on May 21, 2011). The analysis of numbers, or gematria, has been used by the Jewish people in Scripture analysis for many thousands of years. In both Hebrew and Greek, the letters of the alphabet can serve as both letters and numbers. An example of this is that the book of Proverbs contains exactly 375 proverbs written by Solomon. 375 is also the numerical value of the name "Solomon." Numbers in Scripture have always been meaningful, which is why scholars are so interested in this particular number of fish. When a precise number is used in Scripture, there is almost always a deeper meaning.

Here are some of the many interesting analyses that I found about the use of the number 153:
  • If you add the digits of 153 you get 9 which is 3x3 or 3 sets of 3. You can guess why the number 3 is significant, for more read here. 
  • The Greek words "fishnet" and "fishing" are both exactly 8 x 153. In Scripture, the number 8 always refers to the Anointed One, the Messiah, or to the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
  • 153 is also a triangular number, meaning that an equilateral (3-sided) triangle can be uniformly filled with 153 dots. A triangle is often used to represent or to explain the concept of the Trinity, that God is three in one.
  • 153 is the number of Psalms plus the Trinity! (And the number of Hail Marys in the full traditional rosary)
     Have I lost you?

    Anyway, whatever you think of this kind of analysis, I wanted to write about this because it helps to illustrate an important lesson that I learned on my trip. I have always been a little put off by the idea of reading the Bible over and over again. Most of this comes from the pride of desiring novelty. I do not like repeating, rereading, rewriting, watching more than once or redoing anything. It bores me.

    And sure, I have heard over and over again that when we read a passage of Scripture more than once it is never the same because we are never the same. Sure, sure, I know this. As a postulant with a religious order, I read the daily Gospel every day and meditate on it for a half hour but honestly, the thought of reading the same Gospel stories over and over again every morning was not exciting to me, despite many fruitful prayer times.

    But now I can honestly say, I am excited. I have learned, primarily through Tim Gray's teachings on my trip, that every single word in Scripture is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately discernible. And if you pay attention, it is possible to pick up on the many messages that God sends us through small details, like the 153 fish.

      Monday, June 13, 2011

      Whose Dust Are You Covered In?

      As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. - Matthew 4:18-20
      Capernaum was only recently uncovered by archaeologist in 1838, so unlike most holy sites in the Holy Land, it is one of the few that is not inhabited by anyone aside from the Franciscans who maintain the land and buildings. That Capernaum is now uninhabited is a blessing in a land where many holy sites are hidden amid crowds of people, shops and layers of modernization. The lack of visual and auditory noise allowed me to drink in the atmosphere of the abandoned city, the city in which Jesus spent much of his time and where his apostles Peter, James, John, Andrew and Matthew hailed from.

      This was the first site I walked on that Jesus also walked on and I will never forget that first experience. My whole being vibrated with the excitement and knowledge that God walked upon the very same earth that my feet were walking upon.

      I walked around the ruins that were built on the very synagogue where Jesus walked, talked, preached and performed miracles. He would have cured the demoniac, preached the Bread of Life discourse, and healed the man with the withered hand there. And just a few hundred feet away, the ruins of the house of Peter still remain. It is believed that the ruins are the house of Peter because ancient graffiti reveal that early Christians revered the spot and made it into one of the earliest churches where they worshiped. For more archaeological information on Capernaum, check here.

      When we visited all of the sites in the Holy Land our tour leader, Tim Gray, would give us a teaching.  My trip would not have been the same without these teachings. In all of them, I learned new things that gave my faith new texture and vibrancy.

      At Capernaum, Tim told us that near the city a school for studying the Torah was uncovered by archaeologists. The school would have been up and running during the time of Peter, the apostle of Jesus. In that day, young Jewish boys would attend local schools where they would study the Torah. The most promising of these boys would be chosen to continue to study under the rabbi and perhaps one day become rabbis themselves. Peter was a fisherman so we can conclude that he was most likely not one of the most promising students of his time and was not chosen to study the Torah more closely.

      In rabbinic literature studying the Torah is one of the most important things that a Jewish person can do. The Talmud teaches that studying the Torah is an even greater mitzvah or commandment than saving a human life, (the most common reasoning being that studying the Torah leads to saved lives as well, just in another way.)

      There is phrase in the Mishna that says, "May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi," which reveals again the importance of studying the Torah but also of studying under someone who knows and understands Scripture well. All of these facts provide the background to the part in Scripture when Jesus walks by Peter and says to him, "Come follow me."

      It has always struck me as strange that Peter left his boat and immediately followed Jesus. Even if Peter knew Jesus was performing miracles and was a famous rabbi, why would he drop everything right away? Was he really that holy and in tune with God's will for him? The context of Judaism at the time helps me to understand, as Tim Gray suggests, that Peter was following a rabbi, a rabbi who saw something in this rough fisherman that his teachers had overlooked. Peter followed Jesus in the hope and knowledge that this was his only opportunity to be covered in the dust of a rabbi. Little did he know that Jesus was the rabbi of all rabbis.

      As I walked around exploring Capernaum, the town covered in dust until little over a century ago, I ask myself the question that Tim Gray ended his teaching with - "Whose dust am I covered in?" If we could literally follow the persons and things in our life that take the most of our time and energy, whose dust would we be covered in? Would it be our TVs? Our iPhones? Our computers? Our obsessions? Our anger? How many people can say that the majority of their time is spent following Jesus? I can't and I live in a convent.

      Like Peter, we are called to follow Jesus and give over to him all corners of our lives. We can't know Jesus and continue fishing. We have to take risks and leave behind those things in our life that need to be left behind in order to be covered in the dust of God.

      So let's get dirty.

      Tuesday, June 7, 2011

      Spiritual Epicenter - Arriving in the Holy Land

      View of Jersualm from Mt. Scopes
      I never really considered going to the Holy Land. It was always a far away place that I figured I would make it to sometime - maybe.

      Before my conversion I did not consider going because it just was not the place to travel if you do not have sufficient motivation. And after my conversion, it just seemed like too much, like something that I should put off as much as possible in much the same way that early Christians put off their baptism until their death bed. It was just not something that I felt I was ready for or deserved.

      When my parents invited me to go to the Holy Land, I initially thought, "No way." I did not feel worthy. I also thought, "If I go to the Holy Land, what more is there for me to do?" But I took it to prayer and at one point in front of the tabernacle I heard Jesus say to me, "Come see me. See my home. Understand me." I did not quite understand what Jesus was saying to me but I obediently made plans to join my parents on the trip.

      Even though I was pretty confident I had heard an affirmative answer in prayer, serious doubts crept into my mind as the trip drew near. I think humans, despite our constant clinging and grasping at pleasure, have a hard time reaching for what is good or accepting the good in our lives. For me, this comes from the fear that all that is good cannot last, and the belief that there is a limit to the good things that can happen to me. Eventually, I always feel like I am living in a house of cards, the good things in my life have to come tumbling down at some point or reach some kind of limit. These feelings also come from my incomplete understanding of love. Human love is limited and conditional. It runs out, gets impatients and sometimes stops altogether. And sometimes we project our own limitations on God and what we believe His will is for our lives. It is often hard for me to believe that what He wills will be something that I consider to be good. I always expect challenges and difficulties from God but rarely pleasure and fun. It is easier for God to surprise me that way but it also makes for a pretty distrustful relationship. I am always checking my peripheral vision, trying to see what is coming up from behind me to ruin my happiness.

      But thankfully, despite my misgivings, lack of trust and doubts, I made it to the Holy Land.

      Stepping for the first time on the soil of the epicenter of the world, I felt the desire to fall to my knees and kiss the ground. As we drove from the airport to the Sea of Galilee I looked out the windows of the bus and a strange feeling of being at home washed over me. It was a feeling that frankly, I did not expect. I am not Jewish so how can I feel at home in this land that is so far from mine, so different from mine?

      It was a feeling that I would explore and absorb and rest in for the rest of my trip.

      Next - Capernaum