Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Praise of Lament

(We Christians are an enigmatic bunch.)

Enter “Benedictine” or “Rule” into an internet search engine and you will find quite an array of topics to which creative authors have applied the guidance of Saint Benedict:  business leadership, parenting, sports, everyday life in “the world,” and so on.  A quick scan might make it seem as if he had something to say about everything.  While it is true that the wisdom of the Rule is timeless and to some degree portable, it won’t help you with your short game or earn you an “I ♥ MY BOSS” coffee mug.  And here’s a tip:  Don’t go looking to it for instructions on how to observe Holy Week, either; you won’t find any. 

If you consider the liturgical life of Benedict’s monasteries, however, you will find quite a bounty of material for marking the season.  One of the common practices observed by Benedictines—and other traditions, as well—is the chanting of Lamentations during the Triduum (pronounced “trih-doo-um”; literally, “three days”) leading up to Easter.  It is stunningly affecting:  A lone cantor standing before the assembly, singing clear and solemn.  Not rushed (one cannot hurry grief), no accompaniment—just a single, stark lament raised up for all who bow down in prayer. 

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations.” 

It is like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Repent!”  “Prepare!”  In tone and meter, it reminds me of the keening of my Irish ancestors, a ritual cry of grief on behalf of all the suffering.  The Lamentations are a haunting report of desolation, as rightly they should be.

If much of the focus of our Lenten disciplines has up to now been on personal repentance and conversion, then the corporate lament of these three days ought to remind us that our individual journeys can never be divorced from that of one’s sisters and brothers.  All we like sheep have gone astray.  The whole creation groans as it yearns to be made new in Christ.

The witness of scripture casts us corporately into a great mystery, an inquisition before the gates of heaven:  Why was it that Christ had to die on the cross?  How could a loving God allow such a merciless fate to befall a blameless Son?  What part do our iniquities take in this passion play?

I recently heard a pastor assert from the pulpit that the sacrifice of Jesus was not an atonement for our sins because to require the shedding of blood for our repair would make God into some sort of monster; rather, he suggested, Christ died to model for us in a dramatic manner the way of self-giving to which all Christians are called.  While such an explanation might make the crucifixion more palatable to our contemporary sensibilities, it fails to take seriously either the testimony of scripture or the church’s tradition or the bald reality of sin and its consequences. 

The cross is hard stuff.  It is a stumbling block to those who look for signs that God will always intervene for the Righteous and it is foolishness to those who place mere human wisdom in a paramount place of their religion. [i]  But for those who believe…well…it is called the Paschal Mystery for a reason.  We embrace Christ’s act as our salvation, even when we do not fully comprehend why it must be so.

We will save a wider exploration of Christ as Savior in the Rule for another time.  (That’s a full meal, and I’m only serving side dishes today.)  Let this reminder suffice for now:  Benedict was not a systematic theologian.  He was not given to lengthy—or even brief—excurses on the philosophical underpinnings of the monastic life.  Rather, he followed that ubiquitous modern day advice: “Just do it.”

This is not to say that the Rule gives us no insights into the path we travel with Jesus toward Jerusalem.  For instance,
·         Benedict begins the liturgical journey with Easter, unlike his predecessor, the Rule of the Master, which begins with Lent.[ii]  For him, the most important consideration seems to be Christ’s triumph rather than our feeble striving.  It is as if he is saying to us, “The hard things are real and will be ever present,[iii] but there is glory awaiting us when we follow Christ (RB Prol. 50). Persevere in joy!”

·         Our willful disobedience has separated us from God (Prol. 2), but the work of conversion through obedience and our abiding trust in the mercy of God (4.74) will bring us home again.

·         Lenten tears of compunction (49.4) will moisten our cheeks, but we should never allow them to wash away our joy in the Resurrection (v. 7).

·         The valley of the shadow of death is not our final destination nor do we sojourn through it alone.  Christ is our guide and he will bring us all together to everlasting life (72.11).

Monasteries—whether of the traditional, residential sort or of the dispersed variety, such as Saint Brigid’s—are faith communities in which the Cross stands plainly at the center.  We take the lament of Jeremiah and the cry of John the Baptist (sometimes said to be the prototype of the monk) with utter seriousness in season and out.  We are always and everywhere called to heed the Divine invitation: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” (Ps 95:8; Prol. 10)[iv]

Monastics are not, therefore, enamored of a morbid fatalism or an unhealthy fascination with humanity’s penchant for sin; on the contrary, Benedictines are on the whole some of the most joyful people one would ever hope to meet.  It is precisely because we take sin seriously that we must take hope seriously; otherwise, the entire Christian endeavor is for naught.  The cross would have the last word and the tomb would gloat.

I encourage you to spend some lectio time with Lamentations during these Three Days.  Mourn that the world—that we—too often turn away from the God who made us and who loves us.  Raise up a cry for compassion to the One who promised to hear.  And look forward with every fiber of your believing being to the fulfillment of the promise of the Cross.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

Grace be with you,

[i] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
[ii] Terrence Kardong on RB 41.1:  “As in RB 48.23 [and 10.1], where he also begins with Easter, he shows that the festal season is fundamental to his thinking, with fasting an important but secondary complement.  For the Master, however, fasting is mentioned first (RM 28.3), and Lent is the first element considered in the horarium (RM 50.8ff).”  Benedict’s Rule (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1996) p. 333.

[iii] Benedict goes so far as to say that when discerning a candidate’s vocation, “The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether that person shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials.” (RB 587)

[iv] And this beautiful word of truth:  “What, dear brothers and sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?” (Prol. 19)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Picture Not-so-Perfect

(“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”  Garrison Keillor)

Is it just me or does anyone else think their driver’s license photo doesn’t look like them?  When my new license came in the mail the other day, I stared at it and thought, “Well…in a certain light I can see a resemblance, but it definitely does not capture my essential je ne sais quoi.” 
It was about that time that a stroke of entrepreneurial genius hit me:  I could gather ten of my closest friends/donors and open a nationwide chain of glamour shot studios just for driver’s license IDs—passports, too, and maybe even mug shots.  The stores could be called something like Classy Pix 1 Minute Photos.  (Everything sounds much more sophisticated if it’s called “Classy.”) No 8”x10” glossies, just 1”x1” matte.  I’m telling you, it’s a fortune waiting to happen.  Now if we can only convince the DMV…
You might be wondering what in the world any of this fluff has to do with the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It concerns seeing the truth about ourselves.  You see, I knew that the average grocery store cashier would take one glance at my aspect on that license and never question that it is me in the picture.  Being connoisseurs of ourselves, however, we are much more discerning about the nuances of a portrait’s accuracy.  Some snapshots just don’t measure up in our own eyes even if they look like dead ringers to everyone else.  So if we sometimes disagree with other persons about that which is most apparent—i.e. our physical appearance—then how much more might we be at odds over that part of us which cannot be seen—i.e. our interior life?  In the chasm between the two echo Pilate’s Passiontide plea, “What is truth?”[i]
Anyone who has ever felt misunderstood and then spent more than 30 or 40 seconds honestly reviewing that experience can testify that we are not always very good at seeing ourselves as other persons see us.  Sometimes we cling to exaggerated negative images of ourselves and sometimes we paint a rococo-ish portrait of ourselves as paragons of virtue.  Oftentimes we regard ourselves too much in relation to our perception of other persons’ faults or favors—how I stack up against so-and-so’s goodness or badness or talents or looks or bank account or [fill in your own personal yardstick].  All of these things say a lot about how we view ourselves and only a little about how our neighbor sees us.
And if we extend the self-examination to the spiritual plane, we might also admit that mostly we haven’t a clue how God views us. 
We are awfully, terribly, ingeniously clever about bending reality to our preferred way of seeing.  No news here.  Our Scripture-writing ancestors in the faith were acutely aware of the human propensity for self-deception.  That’s why the psalmist so earnest prayed for God to help us with our vision problem.
But who can detect their errors?
                        Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from proud thoughts;
                        do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
                        be acceptable to you,
                        O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
                                                            Psalm 19:12-14
            Benedict, being a man of The Book, knew well the durability of this trait within us.  In order to help us re-focus, he urged his followers to take full advantage of the Lenten season of introspection and repentance.  Our learned saint appointed some strong lenses for the task:  prayer, lectio, fasting, abstaining from some sleep and needless chatter or other forms of self-denial that receive the imprimatur of one’s abbot or abbess (RB 49.4-7).
It sounds like a lot of effort for churchy stuff.  Why go to all this trouble?  Here are the CliffsNotes:
·         How we see ourselves is important because it will inevitably affect how we see God and how we treat God’s children and good Creation; in other words, we treat others not only according to how we view them but how we (if only subconsciously) view ourselves.
·         How other persons see us is important not only because it affects how they treat us but it also gives us clues into how we are presenting ourselves to the world.
·         How our Creator sees us is the Reality which we creatures are intended to inhabit.  It is important to know this “true self”—i.e. our “image of God”-ness—so that we may give proper glory to the One in whose image we were so wondrously and mysteriously made.

In a nutshell, it is about humility—that is, seeing ourselves as God does, and then acting accordingly.  No virtue looms larger in the Rule.  Humility can thus be called the point of the whole monastic project.  By it we come to know who we are in relation to our Lord and Savior—he who did not despise the wretched death of Good Friday in order to bring us to the resurrected life of Easter.  It is a knowledge that ought to fill our hearts with an insatiable gratitude.  It is the basis of all true worship, for it is through humility that we learn what it means to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (72.11).[ii]
When Benedict sketched out the how-to’s of Lent in the monastery, it was his way of helping us clean our mirrors.  The monastic life allows no glamour shots for the soul.  What it offers instead is a good dose of spiritual Windex so that we can see ourselves as we really are, warts and all.  Lent wipes away the soul grime that keeps us from a clearer vision of ourselves.[iii]  Like the picture on my license, I’m not always happy with what the process reveals of me.  But if I’m willing to own up to some reality and scrub away the yuck, then eventually the face that I see looking back at me will be no less than the image of God.  Sounds like a pretty good deal when you think about it.
Grace be with you,
Brother Mani bravely takes a good, hard look in the mirror

[i] John 18:38.
[ii] From St. Cyprian, “We prefer nothing to Christ because he preferred nothing to us”…an immensely touching regard for such lame creatures as we.
[iii] Note:  Even though Lenten asceticisms are part and parcel of being Benedictine, interior housework is ultimately a voluntary thing; no one can make us take it to heart.  It must be our own mature choice for conversio.  As I recently heard one preacher say, “If we don’t want to see who we are, we don’t stand in front of the mirror.”