(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,