Archive | April, 2023

in the name of Love

7 Apr

I haven’t posted anything in quite some time. What follows is my sermon from Maundy Thursday 2023, delivered in my capacity as an ordained deacon in the US Episcopal Church (though I didn’t read every single quote from Hadewijch as that would have been too long). Sources include: Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic; All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997) by Robert Ellsberg; and the teachings I have received thus far as a vowed religious sister (Novice) with The Communion of the Mystic Rose. The above image is from Star Wars: Andor.


Jesus commands us to love, not by our own definitions of love, but by his. On this night, even as the atmosphere darkens, even as death draws near, even as Jesus foresees his own agony and the amount of courage he will need to muster, he first spends time caring for the most basic needs of his friends. The need for food and drink. The need for refreshment and rest. The need for touch and intimacy.

When Jesus washes feet, he shows us that love does not have to look glamorous to be revolutionary. In fact, it’s often the humblest acts of love which speak the loudest. . . . I probably said this last year, but for me, tonight is the most overwhelming of the Paschal Triduum liturgy; yes, even with Jesus’ excruciating, painful death on the cross… we just have so much to absorb this evening, within a closing, swirling darkness.

In preparing for this evening, I was reminded of Hadewijch of Brabant, who was a Flemish Beguine Mystic in the middle of the thirteenth century. Almost nothing is known of her life. Although a prolific author, she inspired no contemporary biography; all that is known of her story must be inferred from her letters and other extant writings. The Beguines were a fascinating movement, which flourished in the Low Countries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, attracted women to a new form of community-based religious life, distinct from the alternatives of marriage or traditional enclosure. The Beguines stressed the value of prayer, the works of mercy, simplicity of life, and an affective spirituality focused on the humanity of Jesus. It seems that Hadewijch may have occupied a position of leadership in one such community.

Hadewijch’s teachings are contained in letters of spiritual counsel, a great body of poetry, and a series of recorded “visions.” The visions describe a number of revelations in which she was afforded particular insights into spiritual realities: “Once on Pentecost Sunday I received the Holy Spirit in such a manner that I understood all the will of Love in all…”; “After on Easter Sunday I had gone to God; and he embraced me in my interior sense and took me away in spirit.”

The central theme of Hadewijch’s writings is Love, a word that dominates nearly every page. Indeed, she has been described as a “love-mystic.” Everywhere she turned, whether in creation, in community, or in her inner depths, she encountered the love of God. No subject failed to ignite her passion: “Once I heard a sermon in which St. Augustine was spoken of. No sooner had I heard it than I became inwardly so on fire that it seemed to me everyone on earth must be set ablaze by the flame I felt within me. Love is all!” Insofar as she responded to this reality with love, she felt herself plunged into the most profound communion with God.

Hadewijch’s love was not a warm inner glow; it was fire, passion, burning desire, the agony and ecstasy of courtly romance. At the conclusion of one of her visions she remarked, “Then I returned into myself, and I understood all I have just said; and I remained to gaze fixedly upon my delightful sweet Love.”

Hadewijch’s letters apparently were addressed to several of her spiritual daughters and reflect a receptive and nurturing personality. Her spiritual discourse is interspersed with expressions of personal affection, and exhortations to virtue, simplicity, and faithfulness: “O sweet dear child, be wise in God!” As a spiritual director, Hadewijch interestingly did not place much stress on prayer, fasting or external discipline. Instead, her emphasis was on love as the essential key to the knowledge and service of God: “Do everything with reliance on Love… Let us live in sweet love. Live for God; let his life be yours, and let yours be ours.” In another missive, she passionately encouraged acts of mercy and service:

Make haste to virtue in veritable Love; and take care that God be honored by you and by all those whom you can help, with effort, with self-sacrifice, with counsel, and with all that you can do unremittingly.

The sweetness and zeal of Hadewijch’s spiritual discourse gives no evidence though of the pressures and criticism that surrounded the Beguine movement, which is comparable to the swirling darkness that we have tonight. At some point, Hadewijch was evicted from her community; under what circumstances we cannot know. Her last letters reflect the pain of this experience, but also the enduring power of her faith.

O sweet child, your sadness, dejection, and grief give me pain! And this I entreat you urgently, and exhort you, and counsel you, and command you as a mother commands her dear child, whom she loves for the supreme honor and sweetest dignity of Love, to cast away from all alien grief, and to grieve for my sake as little as you can. What happens to me, whether I am wandering in the country or put in prison – however it turns out, it is the work of Love.

“Wandering in the country or put in prison?” Exactly what peril Hadewijch faced is unknown, but these and worse fates befell other Beguine mystics (i.e. burning at the stake). And yet, Hadewijch did not endlessly cry “I am being persecuted!” to whoever would listen, or to whoever had no choice but to listen to such pleas. Perhaps she too wrestled as Christ did in the garden of Gethsemane, but Hadewijch remained grounded in the Ground of Being…in God. Whatever her fate, there was no circumstance that could separate Hadewijch from her love of God.

In love I have experienced all these attributes, and I have acted with justice toward these persons, however much they have failed me. But if I possess this in love with eternal being, I do not possess it yet in fruition of Love in my own being. And I remain a human being, who must suffer to the death with Christ in Love; for whoever lives in veritable Love will suffer opprobrium from all aliens, until Love comes to herself, and until she is full-grown within us in virtues, whereby Love becomes one with men.

And so Hadewijch vanished from history, leaving behind her love poems, and a handful of letters, and a final exhortation: “Farewell and live a beautiful life.” What does that mean for us today – live a beautiful life? What does that mean for you? How do we live a beautiful life? Is a life only beautiful if the days are slow, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and you and those within your circles or communities are in lockstep harmony?

That is not what tonight is about. Nor is that what Jesus’ ministry was about during his earthly ministry. Even with his wrestling in the garden of Gethsemane, I am willing to bet Jesus would describe his time with us as “beautiful.” But his time with us was temporary and much too short. Our time too is also short, and so, we too are called to be strangers in a foreign land with hearts “set on pilgrimage” (Ps. 84:5). Our final “goal horizon” is the new creation (the new heaven and earth as we see in Revelation), not this one, which means we need the courage to suffer within this beautiful existence of ours, as we “make haste to virtue in veritable Love.”

Now, courage has more than one ‘meaning;’ we can understand this virtue in more than one way. For one, courage means courage of heart, the boldness to pursue real knowledge of ourselves and of God. And it also means to face the ordeals that must be faced in order to grow, whether the growing needs to be done at the personal level as part of our spiritual formation, or at a communal level. There are times where you will link arms with others to face whatever needs to be faced, and to called out whatever needs to be called out (or, as apparently now said in modern parlance, to “call in” whatever needs to be called in). And at times we will need to stir up ourselves the courage to suffer for Truth, for the Ground of Being, for God. This is a courage that is born from a real, deep insight, from wisdom, and an unyielding sense of responsibility to what is right, good, true, and beautiful, rather than what is easy, expedient and comfortable, though untruthful and corrosive.

Regardless of what the situation is where courage is needed, it will most likely be a desolate time, a lonely, lonely existence, a wilderness existence. It’s like grief…when we are grieving, we just want the whole world to stop and be in that place with us. And guess what: the world does not stop. People continue to carry on with what seems to us as a mundane existence, with not caring what we are experiencing. And with courage there is possibly another variable at play: as Dr. Beverly Crusher told Admirable Picard at the beginning of season 3 of the Star Trek show, ‘Picard’: “trust no one.” You will perceive people lining up against you, either overtly in light of their actions, or implicitly, because of their silence. Because fear will be ever present and fear paralyzes.

And darkness and fear are surrounding Jesus’ loving actions of washing his disciples’ feet tonight. Just think how Peter will soon act because of…fear. He denies Christ not once, not twice, but three times. If you are in a situation demanding you dig deep to muster that courage of heart, the challenge is not to fall asleep or to deny Christ. Meaning we are not to be like a town crier, with getting people to notice either the pain we are in, or what we are going through, by ringing that bell while crying “I am being persecuted!” or “I am being repressed!” While Twitter is a great space for this, it is much beyond Twitter, much beyond the focus in NYC this week, as these loud exclamations of victimhood is pervasive in church circles too, regardless of denomination. May we remember what Hadewjich said: we are to, “take care that God be honored by you and by all those whom you can help, with effort, with self-sacrifice, with counsel, and with all that you can do unremittingly.” Otherwise, we will keep denying Christ, to our detriment.

That does not mean we do not talk about our experiences or how we are feeling. We do need to process; that is vital for our spiritual formation. As we learned during our various Celtic Christian studies that began during Advent, a good ‘resource’ is to find a ‘soul friend,’ a friend worth the name, someone who can keep silent with what you need to share. We do need the proverbial shoulder where we can be vulnerable and express our full range of emotions. Emotions are not bad in-of-itself, whether it is anger, rage, or dejection. Where the problems begin is how we choose to express our emotions. But we can actually pray our emotions and the Psalms are a great place to start.

The Psalms are written by a human hand, expressing every conceivable emotion to God. Jesus himself expresses the most heart wrenching plea from the cross: My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22). My point is simply we do not belittle ourselves and make a public spectacle of ourselves, or by projecting onto others and act out our emotions against someone else.

Instead, what do we do? We follow the example of our Master, Jesus, the Christ: we wash the feet of others. We see to the basic needs of our friends. As Hadewijch wrote, we “make haste to virtue in veritable Love.” We love others, humbly.

And so, tonight, we are reminded that to live a beautiful life, as human beings, in addition to loving humbly, we must and will suffer. Like Jesus, at times, our suffering may be of the prophetic kind. What do I mean by that, well, some time ago, I saw the documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. The filmmaker is a Jewish human rights lawyer, whose family was essentially decimated during the Shoa. He said, “We’re all prone to feelings of group loyalty, a sort of tribal instinct that lumps people together, we tend to see people as victim or perpetrator, as us or them. I understand that tribal instinct, indeed I feel it myself….but as a lawyer, I’ve learned to mistrust being swayed by such feelings, to try to avoid a tribal instinct, when it comes to dealing with issues of justice.”

Like Jesus, and the prophets before him and since, taking a prophetic stance carries with it a considerable burden. Speaking from God’s perspective should not be taken lightly. Scars, condemnation and misunderstandings do go with the territory. What may appear clear, or apparent to supposed evidentiary standards, is, at times, no-where even close to the contradictory truth that you alone may bear. Any training, life experience, overall likeability and respect may, in the end, give way to a few seconds, minutes, or even one statement. And, in the end, as with Jesus, perhaps all you can do with the resulting- overwhelming- hostile scrutiny coming at you, is to respond, “You say so” (see Luke 23:3). Or even to publicly remain silent, which will be to the amazement and wonder of many (see Matthew 27:14; Mark 15: 4-5).

Because there is no room, in justice, for loyalty; there is no room, in justice, for conformity; there is no room, in justice, for friendship, indeed, there is no room, in justice, for even love. Justice, is truly, blind. Now, justice and unity are rightfully intertwined. But unity does not equal lock step formation or uniformity, but a holding of the tension between distinct individuals and the infinitely generous Love of absolute communion. Because unmerited suffering – the cross – is redemptive.

And speaking of the cross, I will now close with a portion from Mary’s Way of the Cross, which is an alternative liturgy for Stations of the Cross, written from Mary’s point of view. As Jesus is carrying that heavy cross, he and Mary meet:

I had managed to break through the crowd
And was walking side by side with my son.
I called to him through the shouting voices,
He stopped.
Our eyes met, mine full of tears of anguish,
His, full of pain and confusion.
I felt helpless;
Then his eyes said to me,
“Courage! There is a purpose for this.”
As he stumbled on, I knew he was right.
So, I followed and prayed silently.

The people then pray:
Lord Jesus, forgive me the many times our eyes met and I turned mine away.
Forgive me the times things did not go my way
And I let everyone know about it.
Forgive me the times I brooded over little inconveniences
Or became discouraged, and did not heed your call to courage!
Yes, Lord, our eyes have met many times, but fruitlessly.

….We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.

(turn up those speakers for the song below)