Monday, March 21, 2011

Memorial of St. Benedict

(A little prayer is in order, I think.  See Benedictine Daily Prayer, pp. 1828-39)

Gregory the Great's account of Saint Benedict's death:

And a prayer from the Breviary (p. 2246):
St. Benedict, you were a man of peace.  You walked the paths of peace your whole life long and led all who came to you into the ways of peace.  Help us, St. Benedict, to achieve peace; peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our sorely troubled world.  Through your powerful intercession with God help us to be peacemakers.  Aid us to work for peace, to take the first step in ending bitterness, to be the first to hold out our hands in friendship and forgiveness.  Beg God to let peace permeate our lives so that they may be lived in God's grace and love.  And at the end of our lives obtain for us the reward of peacemakers, the eternal blessed vision of God in heaven.  Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Examenation Room

(That’s kind of what Lent is:  a time-room in which we are asked to take a good hard look at ourselves. Without even a flimsy paper gown to hide behind.)

This morning the Holy Spirit casually tossed in my path a review of a book on happiness.  Things seem to happen that way if we’re awake enough to pay attention.  Years of spiritual practice—and a couple of cups of Maxwell House—sometimes pay off with an obvious word from the Lord. 
Anyway, according to the reviewer, the author of the book contends that we are all born with a “set point” for happiness:  for some of us the glass is always half full, while others of us take a worried look at that glass and try to decide whether a quick trip to the nearest convenience store is in order.  (“I’d like a half-glass of happiness, please.”)  Regardless of circumstances, says the author, each of us hovers within a few plus or minus degrees of our personal set point.
I’m not sure how far down the road I am willing to go with this theory, although it has been true to my experience that when a group of folks are together on a sinking ship, some of us hide in our emotional cabins, peering out the portals and imagining only dark waters full of spooky-eyed sharks with nasty hangovers and a bad case of the munchies, while other folks energetically search the pantries and storage rooms for any little floaty objects that can be duct taped together in order to fashion a raft that will without any doubt in their minds safely carry them across the uncharted but friendly seas to their new happy home on the other side.[i]

Creations by Lilly © 9 December 2010
[One of the cats for whom I serve as chef, domestic aide and portable heat source made this kibble art for me the morning on which I was to be abruptly liberated from a very bad situation.  God’s fuzzy prophet speaks a word.]

The part of the theory with which I do whole-heartedly agree is that we cannot increase our happiness quotient by setting out head-on to be happier; rather, if we want to be truly and lastingly happy, we must focus instead on cultivating two pervasive qualities:  gratitude and forgiveness.  To this I shout a loud Amen!  While the book is not a “Christian” text, in this pronouncement it digs straight to the root of Gospel joy.
Joy in the Christian tradition is much more than mere happiness.  It is a manifestation of the Christ-life in us.  It does not wax or wane with how well our finances, career, relationships, garden or even our hair is doing.  It is not a Doppler radar image of what’s going on in our surrounding area; it is a more like a weather vane pointing where the Spirit blows inside us.
In chapter five of his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul contrasts the works of the flesh (best not to even mention them in a G-rated blog) with the fruit[ii] of the Spirit—and a lovely, multifarious fruit it is:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-3).  Note that all of these luscious layers of the fruit are outwardly directed, having everything to do with how we treat others in response to the Spirit’s indwelling, and not so much about how we feel inside. Christian joy is above all else a response to the glad tidings of the Good News, the acting out of our firm belief that Christ triumphed over death and sin, taking us right along with him to Salvation.
There’s a whole bunch more to say about joy in the Scriptures—there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 422 references to it in the Old and New Testaments combined—but we don’t have the space to do it here.  For purposes of this blog, let’s turn to the Rule instead.  That will make a much quicker study because Benedict uses the word gaudium [joy] only twice in seventy-three chapters, both times in chapter 49 on “The Observance of Lent” (v. 6 and 7).  Not exactly where one might expect to see it.
1.    Verse 5 exhorts the monks to add more prayer and abstinence to their usual spiritual disciplines (Benedict calls these practices their “service”) during Lent.  He gives the reason for this extra effort in verse 6:  “so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”  The Scripture passage to which he alludes provides us a hint that Benedict knows this offering will not be easy.  Here is the full text:  “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6).
A friend of mine once told me about an old monk in his abbey who, upon learning that one of the novices had left the monastery, asked, “Why?”
“Because he wasn’t happy,” answered a Brother.
“What do you mean ‘he wasn’t happy’?”
“Well, he didn’t like it.”
“Like it?  Who likes it?!!”
Behind this humorous anecdote is the great truth that growing spiritual fruit takes labor—namely, prayer and some healthy self-denial.  And we can’t expect a good harvest with days that are only sunny and fair; a certain measure of rain is required, as well.  These latter are not typically our most enjoyable days.  Stick with it, though; they help the fruit become sweeter—plumped up with the Spirit’s joy.  Keeping in mind this crucial piece of information, we can, indeed, learn to receive the grayer days with a grateful heart.
2.    Verse 7 repeats the call for a brisk Lenten workout, ending with the motivation for all the effort:  so that we may “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”  The Great Feast of the Resurrection celebrates Christ’s victory over all that is amiss in Creation and in God’s daughters and sons.  It holds out to us the offer of forgiveness and full union with the Godhead.  It models for us the forgiveness and communion which we are called to offer one another.  How eager ought we to be for such complete joy!
As good as they might feel, gratitude and forgiveness are not ends in themselves.  Nor is joy an end in itself.  Lent, either.  Their purpose is only to show us a glimmer of our love’s destiny.  Easter is the reason for the season of Lent.  What could possibly make us happier?

Get the Lead (or Ink) Out
Benedict was an imminently practical fellow, so as his disciple, I will try to follow his example.  Here is one small prayer practice[iii] you can undertake as a first step toward cultivating gratitude and forgiveness:  Get yourself a journal (an inexpensive spiral notebook will do nicely), a trusty #2 pencil or perhaps a favorite pen, then sit down every evening and write in your journal 5 Things for which you are grateful that day.  Then make a second list of 5 Things for which you need forgiveness that day—things that you have done or said or thought and/or things which you have failed to do or say or pray.  It is a good and manageable practice not just for Lent but for every season.
This prayer is a form of that venerable tradition of the daily examen.[iv]  When we take time to reflect back on our day, we begin to see the ways in which God has been present to us and the ways in which we have failed to make a loving response to that gift.  Counting our blessings is an obviously positive task; counting our sins sounds much more like a mental hair shirt.  But if we give it all back to God—the good, the bad and the ugly—then we don’t have to carry our own burdens, anymore.  Jesus will do it for us.  When our load has been thus lightened, we can truly “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love!” (Prol 49)  Therein, my sisters and brothers, is the secret to lasting joy.
Grace be with you,

[i] My sincere apologies for this sentence to every junior high school English teacher I ever had.  It is a bit much even by my loose standards.
[ii] Note that “fruit” is in the singular.  Maybe it implies that where one quality is, the others will be also—albeit in different proportions at different times in our lives.  Both a comforting and an encouraging notion, I think.
[iii] Thanks for teaching me this one, LaurenMurphy!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


(In which I shamelessly paraphrase and elaborate upon chapter 49 of the Rule of our Holy Father Saint Benedict.  In my defense, sometimes putting new words to a familiar text can help us hear it in a fresh way.  And perhaps even begin to take it seriously…)

My dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
            It is clear from the words of the Bible, the instruction of the church throughout the ages and the testimony of our own experience that our lives need to be continuously reoriented toward God through repentance and times of renewal.  This constant striving to return our hearts and minds and all that we have and all that we are to the One who has given us everything is not an easy task.  There aren’t many of us who are up to taking on the weight of such a commitment day in and day out.  That’s why we need the encouragement that is gained from the entire community pulling together at the yoke.  Making things right is hard work.  We have a lot of mess to clean up in our lives.  And now is the time to get started on that project. 
Here is how we can do it:
ü  By not giving in to things that we know do not lead us to God;
ü  By giving ourselves wholeheartedly to our prayers and letting them work on us in our very core;
ü  By spending time with the life-giving Word in which God is truly present to you and me;
ü  By doing more than being sorry for our sins, but being ready and willing to change our ways for real and forever; and
ü  By temporarily giving up a few small things in order to remind ourselves that we are not the Source of our blessings and that we are called to share our gifts with those of God’s children who have to do without.
This stuff is really important, loved ones, so let me say it one more time in a slightly different manner:  During these forty days of reflection, try to focus on the state of your union with God by adding to the things—like prayer—that fill your True Need, and taking a few things away—like some food or drink—that only fill your fleeting desires.  If you go that extra mile because you want to rather than because you think you ought to, then you will be amazed at how the Holy Spirit fills you with joy!
I could say it again in yet a third way (e.g., give up some comforts and some frivolous behaviors that detract from your spiritual life anyway, in order to take a good, hard look at your priorities) but I think you get the point by now.  The Big Picture message is that even though this life provides an ample share of crosses to be borne, there is New Life at the end of the road.  We are an Easter People!  Thanks be to God!  We should hone in on that reality so keenly that it feels as if it’s the only thing we could ever possibly want!
Like I said at the beginning of this letter, it is a joyful path we have undertaken but not an especially easy one; therefore, we should help each other on the way.  Let me know what disciplines you plan to practice during these holy days so that I can pray with you in them.  If we launch out on our own in these endeavors, we might well be tempted to give ourselves the credit for being such terribly fine and wonderful people, and we might even deceive ourselves into secretly believing that we are doing God a favor!  So let me know what you’re up to, okay?  I am here for you.
May the grace and peace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ abide with you throughout this holy season.  And may the Holy Spirit fill you with joy in giving!
Your Sister in Christ,