Saturday, September 3, 2011


(Preach on, Brother!)

"Let us stir up our faith and fan the desire for heavenly things, for to love thus is already to share. Let no adversity distract us from such inner joy, no earthly prosperity seduce us from that goal.  Foolish indeed are the travelers who let the sight of pleasant fields along the way make them forget their destination.”

From Homilies on the Gospels

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Short Wade in the Stream of Consciousness

(“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”  Buddha)

     The thing about praying is that you never know where it will take you.  For instance, the reading for this morning’s office of Vigils was pretty straightforward:  Ephesians 6, “the whole armor of God.”  The verses are familiar and well worn (pun intended). The belt of truth holds things together; the breastplate of righteousness protects the heart; the shield of faith fends off spiritual ills; the helmet of salvation keeps our thoughts on Christ; and the sword of the Spirit, the word of God cuts through falsities and the hoo ha that assails our better sense about what God wants for the world.  It draws a pretty vivid picture of the ways in which the faithful must be equipped by the Almighty to faithfully live in a culture not prone to faithfulness. 
But there is one last piece of spiritual wardrobe, the description of which never before quite jumped out at me like it did today:  “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”[i]  “Whatever??”  Huh… So there is no One Perfect Type Footwear of Proclamation (sneakers, snowshoes, sandals, pumps, wingtips), just whatever “makes you ready?”
That made me think of the Rule of Benedict, chapter 1 on “The Kinds of Monks.”  There are two types of which Saint Benedict expressed his approval:  hermits and cenobites.  He might have named other kinds as well, since there were numerous forms of monasticism in his day as in this day.  But Benedict was not the kind of fella to go on and on about things.  For purposes of this wildly flowing stream of thought, let’s just agree that for Benedict, there is no One Perfect Kind of Monk. 
Can we then paraphrase Paul here—with a smattering of cliché thrown in?  “Whatever form of monastic life makes you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, just do it!”  And let’s not get tied up in too many knots about whether we’re getting it “right.”  Let us instead exercise a two-fold humility in our practice:
·         First, we must follow the example of our elders and not presume that we know better than they how to be monastic (7.55); and
·         second, we must follow where our Lord leads us today (Prol 35) and be students rather than slaves of tradition.
Admonition over; back to this morning’s Vigils. 
Today is the memorial of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  The breviary had a couple of dandy readings by the saint.  Here’s a snippet:
Love is its own justification.  It pleases of and for itself; it is its own merit and reward.  It requires no cause beyond itself and no further fruit, for its fruit is in its very exercise.  I love simply because I love, and I love in order to love.  Love, then, is a splendid thing, provided it keeps returning to its source, flowing back into the fountain whence it came and drawing thence its power to continue flowing forth.[ii]
That made me think of how the Benedictine (indeed, the entire Christian) charism is nothing, nothing, nothing other than loving Christ (4.21; 5.2; 72.11).[iii]  If we do this one thing with all of our hearts, we will have no fear in following wherever he leads:  honoring one another above ourselves (72.4), welcoming the guest (53.1), tending the sick (4.16; 36.1), serving the poor (4.14; 31.9) and generally practicing the presence of God wherever we are and whatever we do (7.62-64).
And that led me back to where this ramble began.  After the Apostle Paul tells us what we must put on, he gives one simple instruction about what exactly we must do to make ourselves ready for the service ahead, namely, pray.  Not just once or occasionally and not just for ourselves.  We must persevere in prayer and pray fervently for one another.[iv]  If we want to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called,”[v] if we want to truly love and know ourselves to be loved, if we want to be Good Monks, we must pray and pray until we become all prayer.  There’s nothing else for it, loved ones.  That is our call, our privilege, our joy.  Blessings on it!
Grace be with you all,

[i] Ephesians 6:15
[ii] Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, Sermon 83
[iii] Yes, we as Benedictines do follow a particular set of practices in our learning to love but if I expounded upon all of them here, then how would I build the suspense that keeps readers coming back for more?  The key to successful blogging is cheap theatrics.  (Okay, not really.  I’m just checking to see if anyone ever reads these footnotes.  I’ll stop now.)
[iv] John Wesley, Notes, 6:18-20:  “Praying always - At all times, and on every occasion, in midst of all employments, inwardly praying without ceasing. By the Spirit - Through the influence of the Holy Spirit. With all prayer - With all sort of prayer, public, private, mental, vocal. Some are careful in respect of one kind of prayer, and negligent in others. If we would have the petitions we ask, let us use all. Some there are who use only mental prayer or ejaculations, and think they are in a state of grace, and use a way of worship, far superior to any other: but such only fancy themselves to be above what is really above them; it requiring far more grace to be enabled to pour out a fervent and continued prayer, than to offer up mental aspirations. And supplication - Repeating and urging our prayer, as Christ did in the garden. And watching - Inwardly attending on God, to know his will, to gain power to do it, and to attain to the blessings we desire. With all perseverance - Continuing to the end in this holy exercise. And supplication for all the saints - Wrestling in fervent, continued intercession for others, especially for the faithful, that they may do all the will of God, and be steadfast to the end. Perhaps we receive few answers to prayer, because we do not intercede enough for others.”
[v] Ephesians 4:1

Monday, August 1, 2011

RB72.11: The Soundtrack

(—or— Holy Spirit, Serendipity is Thy Name.[i])   

There have been of late quite a few beautiful mornings for walking here in central Minnesota.  The rains spend themselves during the night and it is relatively cool-ish in those hours before the midday heat cranks up.  The pavement, however, holds its warmth in reserve, reminding us early bird types that yes, it is summertime.

So when I found myself caught up amid a mighty swirl of cottonwood seeds relinquishing their earthbound ways and falling upward toward the heavens, I had to admit that the cause of their lovely ascension was probably just the conspiracy of ante meridiem breezes and convection currents off the hot blacktop.  Simple physics at work and nothing more.

But that’s not how it felt.  It felt like aspiration, like hopefulness, like intention, like joy.  In that moment, the tiny future trees appeared much more feather than flora, more light than substance.  It was of course not the seeds themselves but the open space within them that let the breeze, the breath, the divine ruah fill their “emptiness” and lift them toward where they knew not.  The sight was all the more affecting because it was not a single seed alone on the voyage but a whole throng of them together.

They fly better once they abandon their pods.
(There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.)

 Here’s where the serendipity comes in.  As I happened into that eddy of delight, my buddy Gary Doles’ song “Draw Us Closer” was playing in the headphones.  That tune turned what might have been no more than a personal moment of creaturely pleasure into an upwelling of prayer, a fervent yelp that our faithful God would indeed draw my Sisters and Brothers and me closer—to our divine Home and to one another—just like those seeds.  My heart was stretched into near-eschatological blessedness.  In case you don’t know the song (I really think you would like it, if you did), here are the words:

          Draw Us Closer[ii]

          Draw us closer, closer, closer to You
          Draw us closer, closer, closer to You

          We walk upon this world
          So beautiful and terrifying
          Clinging to this sweet, sweet life
          Living in this dying
          We are gathered at this stone
          On this day
          On this day
          Let the gates of heaven be opened
          The walls of heaven fall away
          Oh be no more divided
          From the longing of our hearts
          Let this world lie gently
          In your arms
          In your arms

          Draw us closer, closer, closer to You
          Draw us closer, closer, closer to You

          We journey through this life
          Mysterious and unforgiving
          We are bound to this hard, hard earth
          Dying in this living
          Shed our tears upon this stone
          On this day
          On this day
          Let the gates of heaven be opened
          The walls of heaven fall away
          O be no more divided
          From the longing of our hearts
          Let this world lie gently
          In your arms
          In your arms

          Draw us closer, closer, closer to You
          Draw us closer, closer, closer to You

            Every turn I made that morning was greeted by another song perfect for the moment.  Nature itself seemed to be in the groove, too.  The aspens in the park were practically dancing their branches off for happy to some melody beyond my hearing.  Seriously.  Here’s a picture to prove it:
I have a hunch they were jammin’ to Charles Wesley
because their leaves looked an awful lot like
a thousand tongues joined in chorus.
In the Methodist Hymnal with which I grew up, this hymn was number 1.  For me it still is.
After passing by the trees—having thanked them for the show—I rounded a bend on the path where an old foot bridge spans a backwater. 

           Picturesque, isn’t it?
Something about that bridge always stirs up images in my head of old, old places long gone but substantial in their time.  The vision is complete with horses pulling wagons, their hooves clattering on the boards, a dusty little village as their destination or maybe even a nice stodgy castle. 

And then this tune started up on the iPod:

          We Give Ourselves Away[iii]

          We are likely to be lost
          And I guess we even know it
          And it passes understanding
          That we are reckless in this way
          And it does not help to know
          All the ways we could avoid it
          It is a calling of the heart
          To give ourselves away

          It is a calling of the heart
          The terms of our surrender
          Come out into the open
          Even though we are afraid
          We have everything to lose
          That we have carefully collected
          We lay our armor down
          And we give ourselves away
          Oh me
          Oh no, not me
          Give myself up to mercy
          Can it be
          Oh how can it be
          In that moment
          Will I find the courage
          To give myself away

          What are we gonna do
          How will we survive
          Standing on the ramparts
          In careless disarray
          Having chosen to be lost
          Abandoning our shelter
          It is a calling of the heart
          To give ourselves away

          It is a calling of the heart
          The terms of our surrender
          Come out into the open
          Even though we are afraid
          We have everything to lose
          That we have carefully protected
          We lay our armor down
          And we give ourselves away
          But we do not count the cost
          We just give ourselves away
You might be wondering by now what any of this reverie has to do with the Rule of Saint Benedict which is, after all, the purported topic of the blog.  It’s just this:

Benedict begins his Rule with an exhortation to follow the path of righteousness[iv] in order that that we might come to know our Lord’s outrageous love (RB Prol 49-50) and he ends the Rule on that same note (72.11-12; 73.8).  It is a literary device that scholars call inclusio—bookends that set the theme, fleshing it out with everything that comes in between.  He is not calling us to be (simply) paragons of virtue, but great and selfless lovers.   He urges us to abandon the false shelter of our own ego constructs and come out into the open where there is love without walls, nothing to hide behind and no shelter but the shelter of God’s wings.

            Benedict makes his plea by demanding ready service of the Christ in others.  He is relentless in his call to forgiveness.  He brooks no limitations on obedience or humility.  All of this because he well understood that it is entirely possible to live walled off from others, even if there are no physical barriers that separate us. 

It is vitally important that those of us who live in dispersed community understand this message.  We are often tempted to think that it would be oh-so-much easier to be a Benedictine if we only lived together in a cloister.[v]  Yes, there are advantages to rubbing elbows (and egos) on a daily basis—such as the encouragement found in a shared goal and the constant reminders of our commitment—but buildings have never been the sine qua non of being a “real” monk.  The rampart on which we stand is Christ and Christ alone.

We are in this together, my dear sisters and brothers, and it is together that our Lord wants bring us to everlasting life (72.12).  Therefore let us avail ourselves of every instrument in the monastic toolbox[vi] that we can possibly use to pry, carve, chisel, dissolve or hammer out open spaces within us so that God may fill us with the wind of the Spirit and lift us all closer to Christ.


[i] Serendipity:  1754 (but rare before 20c.), coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." The name is from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Skt. Simhaladvipa "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island." Serendipitous formed c.1950.  [ citing the Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper]
[ii]  I don’t know where Gary puts the punctuation, so I left it out.  I like the ambiguity that this absence leaves in its wake, though:  Is it the world that is “so beautiful and terrifying” or is it us?  Is it this life that is “mysterious and unforgiving” or is it us again?
[iii] From Garrison Doles, Whenever I’m With You.  It was a Gary kind of day.
[iv] Note:  There is no “works righteousness” in the Benedictine life.  This point isn’t necessarily obvious when we think of monastic discipline and all of the rules within the Rule.  The purpose of Saint Benedict’s framework—and it is only a framework and never a goal or an end in itself—is not to force our weak spines into a morally upright posture.  It is a fine thing if we do become better behaved along the way; the triumph, however, is not in our goodness but in God’s grace.  I recently heard a preacher make a similar point from a slightly different angle:  “Jesus did not come to make bad people good; he came to make dead people alive.” (Crawford Loritts)
[v] It’s the same deal as thinking that our faith would be stronger if only we had known Jesus in person and walked with him along the shores of Galilee.  Remember Peter for a reality check on that little illusion (Matt 26:69-75).
[vi] Cf. RB 4 for a refresher course.

Monday, July 11, 2011


(“But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’”  Matthew 19:26)

There was a man of venerable life, blessed by grace, and blessed in name, for he was called "Benedictus"[i] or Benedict. From his younger years, he always had the mind of an old man; for his age was inferior to his virtue. All vain pleasure he despised, and though he was in the world, and might freely have enjoyed such commodities as it yields, yet he esteemed it and its vanities as nothing.

            Thus beginneth Gregory the Great’s prologue to The Life and Miracles of Saint Benedict, otherwise known as Book II of the Dialogues of Saint Gregory.[ii]  From the sound of it, our father Benedict was a natural born saintly guy, holy from the womb.  Cheater. 
Not all of us are so gifted.  I take much consolation in knowing that a whole bunch of the folks who have made it through the canonical hoops to canonization did not exactly have the saintliest of credentials.  Among them are an exceptional amount of curmudgeons, cranks, criminals (reformed, we hope), ne’er-do-well’s and jokesters. Some were even timid and doubtful about their vocations.  And more than a few would have been judged in the eyes of the world to be abject failures at even the holiest of their endeavors.  In short, they did not all seem to have the divine imprimatur from their younger years.  (There’s hope for us yet!)
A Reader’s Digest review of this latter bunch calls me to question my bias regarding what it means to be a saintly sort.  It looks something like this:  an even-tempered demeanor, unfailingly hospitable, sage words, Über pious, and magnificent deeds of sacrifice and service.  Not just some of these qualities, mind you.  All of them.  All the time.  In one package.  Yikes.  I don’t know about you but I can only hit one or two of those qualities for about six minutes on my best day, much less every blessed day of my life.
But as mentioned previously, not all saints look alike.  So if being a “saint” is not about having The Total Package of Goodness, what is it?  Just this:  The common denominator of every woman, man and child who has ever attained the title of “Saint This or That” is the seeking of God with their whole being, no holds barred, nothing kept in reserve in case the gig didn’t work out.
If you don’t think you’re up to such a thorough-going standard, you’re right.  You aren’t up to the task.  You can’t make yourself into a saint no matter how hard you try.  Only God can make a saint.  And God would love to do just that with each and every one of us.  Really.  No kidding.  (Trust me….I’m a theologian.)  All we have to do is open the door and let Love come in.  But don’t forget to leave the windows open, too, so that Love can go out from us in return.

I’d like to go on a bit about the gospel reading from this morning’s Lauds—it’s Peter’s snippy question to Jesus (“Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?” Matt 19:27) and Jesus’ reply about leaving kith and kin in exchange for eternal life.  I won’t, though, because
a)    The passage cries out for a full on sermon.  (I might get preachy but that doesn’t make me a preacher.)
b)    My soap box is being remodeled and is out of commission at the moment.  (I’m having it carpeted.)
c)    I need to head out the door and go be with some blessed folks in person.  (Feast days are best celebrated with good food and better company.)
So let me leave you with a few questions, instead:  What does holy look like to you?  Would you like that image to be you someday?  If not, why not?  If so, what’s holding you back...or better...what part of you are you holding back from God?  Whatever it is, let it go, loved ones, let it go.  Trust our gracious Lord to make of you what you have been made to be, namely, a great saint of God.
You are in my prayers.
Grace be with you,

[i] Benedictus is Latin for “blessed.”  Even the greatest saints aren’t above a little happy word play now and then.
[ii] Help yourself to more edifying reading!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


(Must excel in virtuous living and wise teaching.  The dissolute and profligate need not apply.)

My dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
            Okay, I gotta be honest here… I’m way too exhausted to give you a decent account of the marvels this day held:  the conversation with Fr. Simeon Thole, OSB, on deans in the Rule of Saint Benedict, the wonderful prayers, the beautiful rain, the bountiful food, the fascinating tour of the Abbey Church (upper, lower and reliquary), the conviviality of endless delights, all topped off with Dilly Bars and a good ol’ fashioned Methodist hymn sing before Compline (a word which, as one of our equally weary wits remarked, sounds very close to “complain”).  So let me suffice to give you a couple of pictures and the evening’s reflection on the Rule.
            We’re having an amazingly blessed time on retreat, so keep up the prayers.  They are working!  And please remember that you are in our hearts and prayers, as well.
Grace be with you,

Fr. Simeon and Yours Truly

Compline Reflection for Tuesday
Chapter 21.  The Deans of the Monastery
If the community is rather large, some sisters or brothers chosen for their good repute and holy life should be made deans.  They will take care of their groups of ten, managing all affairs according to the commandments of God and the orders of their abbess.  The deans selected should be the kind of persons with whom the abbess can confidently share the burden of her office.  They are to be chosen for virtuous living and wise teaching, not for their rank.
If perhaps one of these deans is to be found puffed up with any pride, and so deserving of censure, that person is to be reproved once, twice and even a third time.  Should that dean refuse to amend, he or she must be removed from office and replaced by another who is worthy.  We prescribe the same course of action in regard to the prioress or prior.

The Rule of Saint Benedict has sometimes been described as wisdom literature.  It is a spiritual document as much as it is a legislative one.  So the “officers,” if you will, of the monastery are not mere functionaries for the administration of the collective.  They are also role models.
When Benedict looks for leadership in the monastery he does not require defined skill sets; rather, he looks for particular virtues.  In the case of the deans, he does not ask that they be highly organized or have a good head for business or be charismatic leaders—though there is nothing at all wrong with these talents.  Instead, he looks for persons of “good repute and holy life” (21.1) and “virtuous living and wise teaching” (21.4)—the very same qualities that he commands for the abbot or abbess, that person who “is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery” (2.2).
All of this notion begs the question:  Why do we need role models at our age?  Aren’t we all grown-ups here?  If you think you are a fully-formed adult and, therefore, all you are ever likely to be, think again!
Years ago I heard a sermon in which the preacher used such biblical luminaries as Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, and Mary the teenaged unwed mother to make the point that “God doesn’t use our past to determine our future, so why should we?”  My sisters and brothers, with God’s help and the support of other believers, we can become that which we were created to be—namely, good and holy, virtuous and wise…the image of God.
Here’s one suggestion that might help:  If you know someone that you admire, ask yourself why you esteem that person.  Are they someone whom you would want to be more like?  If so, watch them.  Watch how they treat other persons, how they listen or hold open a door or read a scripture.  The object is not to become clones of this person.  That would not be possible.  They have their own chemistry and their own history which we cannot possibly recreate.  No, the point is to try on some of the behaviors you observe in them, knowing that these outward expressions are manifestations of inward graces.
At Compline last night we reminded ourselves that the motivation for the Benedictine life is nothing less and nothing other than the love of God, learning to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (72.11).  If we want models for how to live up to this imposing ideal, we need look no further than the sisters and brothers around us.
Crucifix in the Saint Francis Chapel