Monday, February 28, 2011

The Romantic Monk

(Herein is exhibited further proof that there really is neither rhyme nor reason to these blog postings.  If you are looking for some master plan or pattern, my advice is to abandon hope now.)

I have often said that the monastic novitiate is a lot like dating.  Not because it might sometimes involve a ’76 Honda Accord with Fleetwood Mac rocking out the cassette player (don’t ask), but because both enterprises are meant to be a protected space for “trying on” the relationship without the pressure of a lifetime commitment. 
There are similarities in the first flower of most every human relationship:  Sometimes the parties click right away and sometimes there is an awkward, pimply “getting to know you” phase; sometimes it feels like kismet and a perfect fit right from the get-go but then life creeps in and the two parties drift apart (a probable sign that at least one of the parties has ceased working very hard at the relationship).  It’s the same deal with becoming a Benedictine.  Monasteries are made up of people, not angels.  We need to get to know one another before—and after—any particular pledge of devotion is made.
Like dating, there is a certain amount of romantic optimism that is associated with the beginnings of monastic vocation.  Just as we can be attracted to the appearance of another person, so we can be drawn to the look of historical monasticism:  the robes and habits, the majestic liturgies, the aesthetic appeal of the buildings, the “smell” of something so solid, enduring and ancient, the sheen of holiness that surrounds the whole package.
As relationships mature, though, the glories of those first enchanting encounters will probably fade or fray a bit.  Donning the habit—whether a literal or a metaphorical one—can become mere habit.  Routine settles in and brings with it a relentless predictability.  Not that the beaten path is necessarily a bad thing; familiarity can breed content as well as contempt.   A reliable rhythm can serve to take the focus off the sauce of external manifestations and place one’s attention on the meat of internal motivation.
Still in all, there are times when a re-kindling of the romance can be a darned welcome thing.  When we go to prayer and find ourselves muttering, “What?!! Psalm 51, again??” or when a Sister steps on our last nerve in the dish room or a Brother pulls out that joke you’ve heard him tell at least fifteen times, it is then that memories of our first breathless encounter with monasticism help us to recall why we wanted the relationship in the first place.  An old spark fanned to flame re-warms us for the hard work of daily togetherness and can lead us out of discouraging doldrums.
That is one of the benefits of heightened occasions like our annual community retreat.  Putting faces to voices for the first time is always exciting. An almost chemical reaction takes place among us—like atoms bonding together to make something wonderful and new and stronger than the individual particles could ever hope to be.  The sensory impact of praying with the other more established Benedictine communities in this locale is undeniable:  the seeming effortlessness of trained voices chanting in harmony with one another, the habits, the incense, the accoutrement of the contemplative life…  It’s as if we are at summer camp for grown-ups, except that rather than canoeing on Lake Granada, we are swimming in the stream of centuries of monastic tradition.  It is invigorating.  It should encourage us to strive for greater fidelity to our Benedictine identity.  It should not, however, become idealized to the point that it is an idol.
I have lived in and worked around Benedictine monasteries for the majority of my adult years.  In that time I have witnessed some of the best of what the life can make of persons.  And I have seen what it can become when the relationship is at its worst.[i]
The best in monasticism, as in any Christian walk, has its origin in whatever clings to Christ.  This past Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 6:24-34) admonished us believers to put our trust wholly and solely in God.  We ought not to get so caught up in the provisions that we forget the Provider; rather, we must “strive first for the reign of God and God’s righteousness” and leave the rest to the One who is ever merciful, ever faithful, ever loving.  We are called to absolute fidelity in this relationship.  No other attraction—no matter how good or beautiful—should distract us from The Main Thing.  As John Wesley so strikingly proclaims in his commentary on Matthew’s passage, “whosoever seeks this first, will soon come to seek this only.”[ii]  
When we prefer nothing whatever to Christ (72.11), then we are the truest of whom we were created to be.  That is why a woman or man can be a “real” Benedictine with or without a bricks and mortar cloister or a habit or any other of the external symbols of monasticism that have developed over the centuries.  It’s not about the edifice of the institution; it’s about the sanctification of the soul.
Saint Benedict did a fine job of mapping a Gospel path.  Let us never forget, though, that it is Christ himself who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Love being Benedictine, my Sisters and Brothers, but be in love with the Lord.
Grace be with you,

[i] As to the latter, I will hold to Benedict’s counsel, “It is better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life.” (RB 1.12)
[ii] Notes, Matt 6:33.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

“Hello! Church of Christ. Jesus speaking…”

(You can’t tell from this photo, but the message on the LED screen of my telephone reads “Missed Call.”  There’s a sermon illustration waiting to happen.)

The experience of trying (emphasis on “trying”) to write this week’s blog entry provided an ample sample of irony for me.  I labored and sweated and fretted over the topic I’d originally chosen.   It was not a bad topic—a fairly important one, actually—but it just wasn’t coming together.  The pieces were there but the blend was not—kind of like baking a quite nice chocolate cake then topping it with broccoli frosting:  it might look good but no one would swallow it.  So back to the drawing board (or mixing bowl) I went.
The irony is that these blog reflections are intended to focus on the Rule of Saint Benedict …you know…that little document that starts with the word “Listen.”  Only I wasn’t.  Yes, I asked God to bless the work before I began writing (cf. RB Prol 4).  But I did not bother to ask what God might want me to write.  As that Kaiser of Klutziness, Homer Simpson, would so eloquently opine at such moments, “Doh!” 
Why was I attempting to do this web-ish work in a way that was different from all my other service in the community?  Why didn’t I stop to listen for the Lord’s guidance on what I should write?  And the question presses itself (pass the Bactine, please, ‘cause this one’s really gonna hurt):  How often do I act without prayerful listening in other matters concerning the monastery?
This month’s ongoing formation gatherings have focused on RB 3:  “Summoning the Community for Counsel.”  As we discovered, genuine Benedictine counsel is a matter of neither
·         courtesy (despite that it is a most amiable companion to Charity);
·         consensus (too often the lowest common denominator in the spectrum of decision making options);
·         “buy in” (a chipper little nom de plume for “manipulation,” brought to us by the world of business); nor
·         brainstorming (as valuable as that might be in other places and settings).
No, Benedict’s rational for summoning the Sisters and Brothers is unequivocal:  because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” (3.3)  The Lord will speak through whom he wills; we cannot predict who that person might be in any given discussion.  Taking counsel is a spiritual discipline and ought to be approached as such.  Practical outcomes are not exactly beside the point but if they are not attained in a way that is consonant with the values of the monastery, then they might well be to the detriment of the monastery.  Method matters.  To ignore the spirit is to numb the soul.  
Furthermore, we are not asked to be original, innovative, creative, insightful or astute in our decisions; we are asked only to follow.   Those other qualities might well attend our decisions, but they are not our goal.  Our goal is to be faithful to the One who is our Head, our Heart, our Home. The Word of God is trustworthy and true; he intends for us only goodness and life.  Why, then, would we not long with every fiber of our ever-lovin’ being to hear his voice, to trust his voice, to rejoice in his voice and to do only his will of Love?
Here’s the thing:  God gave us these rather silly looking ears stuck on either side of our heads—neither as impressive as a mule’s nor as elegant as a cat’s—so that we could aim them at the brothers and sisters who walk beside us on this earthly path.  Not all of us are gifted with the sound of angels whispering to our spirit but we can all attune ourselves to the voice of God spoken by flesh to flesh.  We can get to the point of recognizing a true word of God in the midst of so much other racket.  Really we can.  We do it the same way that an artist gets to Carnegie Hall:  Practice!  Practice!  Practice! every, every, every day.
Let’s be honest… the consequences of our failure to listen in “small” matters don’t seem that dire.  If we choose not to answer an email from a sister or brother or if we allow our attention to wander during a formation gathering, nobody dies and things don’t usually come to a grinding halt.
But what happens to the integrity of our Benedictine life when we only sometimes make the effort to listen?  Well, for starters, consultations stops (RB 3); obedience, by definition, becomes impossible (5); the quality of prayer suffers (19); guests are left out in the cold because no one hears their cry (66); and opportunities for forgiveness are missed (71), just to name a few.  (Is there any of that Bactine left?)
We Benedictines believe that obedience is responsive listening—a habit acquired by long and conscientious attention until it becomes second-nature.[i]  So if I am not purposefully practicing listening/responding in my monastic community, this school of the Lord’s service in which I have chosen to enroll, this laboratory of listening, this auditorium of auscultation, then where and when else am I not giving full attentiveness for the voice of the Lord calling, “Follow me”?  …with family? …with friends? …at work? …at church?
Lent is but two short weeks away.  As we begin to think about what practices we will observe during the holy season of repentance, let me suggest that our Lenten discipline might include a daily examination of the ways in which we have or have not listened for our Lord’s leading.  Just don’t forget to start by asking Jesus what he thinks.  Everything goes better when we do.  Trust me on that one.
Grace be with you,

[i] “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.” (5.1-2)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

This Little Light o’ Mine

(A confession:  I am beginning to figure out that approximately 32.975% of my distressing aversion to writing might be attributable to the sin of gluttony.  Take the story of Saints Scholastica and Benedict, for instance—there’s so much doggone material to write about that I had a heck of a time picking just one piece of it.  I mean have you read this stuff?? It is crazy good story telling.  Aargh!  This blog will be the death of me yet.)

Icon of Saints Benedict and Scholastica by Amanda Hunter © 2010

Seriously, have you read the story of Saints Scholastica and Benedict recently?  Take five minutes to do so.  Here’s a link, in case you don’t have your copy of the Dialogues handy:  Go on now.  I’ll wait here until you come back.


Done?  No, come on, read it.  Really.  It’s short—it will take five minutes max.  You’ll like it.  Trust me.  Here’s the link again: 


See?  I told you it was good stuff!  Gregory the Great weaves a nifty little yarn about a family reunion between two venerable old monastic founders, Saint Benedict and his (as legend has it, twin) sister Saint Scholastica.  It’s a good reminder that saints aren’t angels with clipped wings; they were made of regular old dust and ashes, just like us, and have real-life earthly kin, the same as we do.  Every one of them has a “past,” even if they behaved better in theirs than we did in ours.
As helpful as it is to remember their blessed humanity, it is, of course, not the point of the story.  Gregory tells us about this episode in response to the question of whether a holy person “can always carry out their wishes, or at least obtain through prayer whatever they desire?”  The answer is plainly no.  With the notable exception of Jesus—who doesn’t really count because he had the obvious advantage of being fully divine as well as fully human—not even the holiest among us can always get what they want, even if they pray extra, extra hard for it.  This insight ought to be a comfort for us as we bumble through our own prayers, asking for good weather or healing or world peace or a winning lottery ticket (proceeds to be used only for charitable purposes, of course).  Too often either nothing seems to “happen” or the answer is “Nuh-uh.”  As they say, the only prayer that never fails is “Thy will be done.”
Okay, but if that is the one lesson to be learned from the story, then why did Gregory end by talking about love?  When you think about it, Saint Benedict was behaving in a pretty un-Benedict manner here.  Saint Scholastica asked him to extend their annual Jesusfest for a few hours and he said no.  So she prayed her heart out to the Almighty, got the miracle she requested, and what did her brother do?  He got ticked off about it, chastised her and stayed only “unwillingly.”  Is this the same guy who wrote 73 chapters of instructions on how to get better at loving God and one another?? Is it the same guy who started the whole thing by telling us to Listen??  “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart, holy abbot!”  Call me crazy, but if someone prayed for me to stick around and got an immediate monsoon from God to make me do so, I’d like to think that I’d have sense enough to yield to the Message rather than griping about missing curfew. 
Some commentators have suggested that in this instance, “Benedict is, as it were, paralyzed by his faithfulness to the Rule.”[i]  This assertion has the unfortunate implication that the story pits law against love.  One could certainly draw such a conclusion; but again, it hardly fits with the image of a man whose life’s work has been lauded through the centuries for its moderation and grace.  He said himself that the whole purpose of the Rule is not only to “amend faults” but to “safeguard love” (RB Prol 47).  Maybe he just got crabby when it was too far past his bedtime.  He was an old guy by this point, after all.
Mostly I wonder if Benedict wasn’t missing some important clue here.  What was going on with Scholastica in that room?  Did he not pick up on her urgency and wonder what it was all about?  Granted, they lived apart from each other since their youth and only got together once a year at most, but Gregory tells us that they were so close that “their souls had always been one in God.”  Benedict even arranged that the two of them would share the same grave.  Could this man of Vision and of visions not see that his twin would be dead in three days?  After all, Scholastica seems to have known it.
I have only been with a dying person once.  It was an experience I will never forget.  There were moments during my friend’s last days when he shined with a light that I can with absolute certainty say was not an earthly one.  Hospice and hospital chaplains have told me that it’s a common phenomenon, a sign of the holy taking hold.  Our true visage coming to light as the masks drop away, perhaps?  If that other worldly glow is in essence a seeping through of the divine fire which resides in us always, why don’t we see it in one another every day?  If we did, I suspect that we would be a whole lot better at genuinely receiving all as Christ.
If Saint Scholastica was aware that she was nearing the Heart of Love, maybe that is why her love was so much more effective on this occasion.  It’s the power of proximity.  What extravagant things could we accomplish if we, in choosing every day to draw closer to Christ, were able to unleash more of the divine light within us?  Now that would be another great story, wouldn’t it?
            God bless you in Love and loving.  Happy Feast!

[i]Adalbert de Vogüé commentary on Gregory the Great, The Life of Saint Benedict (NY: Fordham University Press,1993) 160.