Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Return

In associating with a monastic community there can be a certain sense of fascination or romanticism at the outset, particularly when ones lifelong frame of reference is devoid of any monastic knowledge or experience. In my own case, what little knowledge I had was tainted by well-intentioned professors who insisted that monasticism was little more than the fruit of extreme stoicism.

Then I began to read history for the sake of understanding for myself. At the beginning I honestly didn’t see or understand how I was being led in this exploration. Hindsight, they say, is always 20/20.

My introduction to monastic spirituality began with the Celtic hermits. These hermits introduced me to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The eremitical life was especially appealing to me for a number of personal reasons. My exploration took me on to Pachomius and monasticism in the East. After this long exploration I came upon St. Benedict and the monastic expression that he founded in Western Europe.

Any movement will have extremists and it’s easy to draw conclusions about a whole that are not wholly accurate. This is especially true when we are looking for reasons to justify our chosen preferential reasoning - conditioned reasoning that can easily lay stumbling blocks that hinder the personal freedom that is true freedom.

Moving beyond our conditioned mental conclusions, especially when these conclusions have some theological or denominational faith-base to them, is not always a comfortable experience. It is, more often, uncomfortable and challenging. It can really upset our lives. It has the potential to upset those closest to us.

It is, at the same time, deeply fulfilling in ways that are difficult to describe. It brings with it an interior knowing that goes beyond any mental knowing, a knowing that will not allow us to rest until we say yes to its beckoning.

Monastic spirituality has an inherent nature about it that draws the heart and soul into its solitude, into its routine and structure that lead us into deeper solitude and contemplative fruit. It speaks to our deepest self. It quietly and unimposingly calls us. Its invitation can be summed up in one word. Return.

Return to God.
Return to prayer.
Return to one’s authentic self.

Is it possible to accomplish this trinity of returns without entering into or associating oneself with a body of cloistered religious, without some common structure, without a rule to guide us? It may be. But, looking at the overall context of Christian history, it is more highly probable, without a community and a rule to assist and guide, to find ourselves wandering about in directionless little circles in the aimless wilderness of self[1] where we lead ourselves according to our own interests and write our own rule of life as we go.

[1] See RB Ch. 1, The Kinds of Monks

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Little Lent

It is interesting that the prescribed daily reading[1] in the Rule of St. Benedict, on the occasion of the First Sunday in Advent and the beginning of this New Liturgical Year (November 30, 2008), has to do with observing Lent. It has to do with penitential living. Benedict insists that “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent”[2], but allows that there should be at least “seasons” when more specific ascetic activity would become both a personal and collective focus in the lives of his disciples.

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, Advent is observed as “Little Lent.” The tradition makes sense, at least to me, and is certainly in line with Benedict’s thought. We are preparing ourselves for the commemoration and celebration of the First Appearing of Christ. “The negative effort at renouncing sin finds expression in positive acts.”[3] It seems only appropriate to make some kind of offering of ourselves during this seasonal remembrance, to spend time in recollection, reconciliation, and reparation.

There is no personal penance or oblation that we can offer that will atone for our sins.[4] Asceticism, though, isn’t about atoning for our sins. It is about awareness, preparedness, and watchfulness. It is about the earnest development of a purer and more pious consciousness. It concerns itself with necessarily improving our lives because of our sins.

In anticipating the commemoration of Christ’s First Appearing as the gentle and quiet Lamb of God slain by his enemies, we are, in essence, anticipating his Second Appearing as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who will destroy his enemies. This time, “The Savior will not come to be judged again, but to judge those by whom he was judged. At his own judgment he was silent; then he will address those who committed the outrages against him when they crucified him and will remind them: You did these things, and I was silent.”[5]

The words of Christ in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent are poignant, calling us to the Lenten mindset spoken of by St. Benedict. “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”[6]

[1] RB Ch. 49
[2] RB 49:1
[3] Adalbert de Vogue, Reading Saint Benedict, p. 243
[4] Ephesians 2:8-9
[5] St. Cyril, Liturgy of the Hours, p. 143
[6] Mark 13:33-37

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Benedictine Ideals

One of the things that Saint Benedict offers us in the Rule is a set of ideals that never cease to challenge us. He invites us to something, to someone, that is always, at the same time, both beyond ourselves and within ourselves.

We know Christ by faith and we trust in the verity of God revealed in Scripture. We are convinced by his divine activity that the Scriptures are true, that he has come to save us, and that the life of salvation calls us to enter into the life that is his life.[1] His life, conceived in us, becomes our life[2] and we can’t possibly help but to conclude, if we are honest in our appraisal, that the development of his life in us, the ultimate ideal, is too important to ignore or take lightly.

Benedictine’s Rule, although primarily designed as the guidelines for life lived within the monastic enclosure, is an invaluable aid in cultivating the realization of the ultimate ideal in our lives. It’s rubrics and schedules, precepts and principles, although difficult to adhere to precisely here in the workaday world outside of the monastery, still provide a certain definable and attainable form and cadence to life.

The precise form and cadence of the Rule, particularly concerning the Opus Dei, continually invites and challenges us to invest more of ourselves in actuating the monastic ideals intended to lead us in the realization of the ultimate monastic ideal. Prayer and prayerfulness, are, more than anything else, the heart and soul of Benedict’s monastic spirituality.

We short ourselves, do ourselves an injustice, when we rationalize our way around, or entirely out of, consistently performing at least some part, or parts, of the Work of God.[3]


[1] John 8:32
[2] Luke 17:33
[3] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Sec. D, para. II

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Habit of Prayer

Those uninitiated in prayer, and those who have never given themselves to growth in the depths of prayer, tend to see prayer as something of an encumbrance to life in the ordinary when prayer is really intended to be the ordinary in our lives.

Ora et labora. Prayer and work. A key Benedictine motto.

Although it certainly qualifies at times, and how would we make it if it were not, prayer is more than a recourse or last resort when life’s circumstances come down hard upon us. Even this opportunity to avail oneself to God’s graces through prayer, however, seems to be lost in a society that no longer understands the habit of prayer as the ordinary for life, a society that surrounds itself with so much futility, despair, and hopelessness, one that has forgotten, or never learned, the value of prayer as a lifestyle.

Prayer is the center stage on which all of life is played out through its various scenes on supporting stages. The personal and collective significance of this can’t be overstated.[1] “It is an old custom with the servants of God always to have some little prayers ready and to be darting them up to heaven frequently during the day, lifting their minds to God out of the filth of this world. He who adopts this plan will get great fruit with little pains.”[2] Liturgical form in prayer, when accepted and embraced as the foundation for all prayer, inevitably leads to healthy, brief spontaneous responses[3], including mental and nonverbal responses.

We are, I think, as God’s created, obliged to offer prayers to him. He is, after all, the Supreme Being and we are, though created in his image, honestly much lesser creatures. We owe our being to his Being, our life to his Life. The greatest fruit in prayer, though, begins to ripen when, while never losing a sense of obligation and routine, we find ourselves desiring to be clothed in prayer simply for the sake of prayer, simply for the sake of its communal nature, one that draws us into the experience of God himself as he is and of ourselves as we are.

[1] 2 Chronicles 7:12-14
[2] St. Phillip Neri
[3] RB Ch. 20

Friday, November 28, 2008

Liturgical Form

Society, in our fast paced post-modern culture, reminds me of a small boat that has lost its rudder, anchor, and sails. It has lost its ability to hold itself safely fast. It cannot steer itself toward safe harbor. It is victim to any and every wind, destined to be dashed to pieces on the rocks and reefs.

Historical foundations, guides that are more often viewed by this society as restrictive interferences, are abandoned in favor of less restrictive ideals. Liturgy, in the mind of post-modern society, is unimportant, contains no contemporary meaning. Devoid of historical liturgical form, life becomes fashioned by whim and fancy, personal emotion and notion.

No rudder. No anchor. No sails. Victims of the changing winds and storms of life.

Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter.
Advent. Lent. Easter. Pentecost. Ordinary.
Matins. Prime. Tierce. Nones. Vespers. Compline.
Glorious, Joyful, Luminous, and Sorrowful Mysteries.

Natural and liturgical rudders, anchors, and sails that offer, promise would be more exact, something deep and meaningful to any person or society that dares to allow them to serve as their personal governors.

I lived most of my life outside of any kind of prescribed liturgical form. My life was lived extemporaneously. As a Protestant pastor, I chose what texts I preached from. Extemporaneous prayer was the only kind of prayer I knew. Essentially, I wrote my own liturgy to fit my own perceived needs.

Looking back, I have to admit that what I preached and how I prayed were generally governed by the emotional and situational context formed by my own subjective human perceptions and those of the congregational moment. Subjective objectivity, though sincere, is more often very near sighted. Without corrective lenses we are always stepping into potholes, twisting our ankles, or worse.[1] It is a prescription for disaster.

Discovering and returning to historical forms, aligning my own liturgy of life with historical liturgical norms rather than trying to create my own syncretistic version that easily accommodates life in this post-modern society, is not without some significant challenges.

Seeing the pathway through all the fog and smog of post-modernity is one thing. Mustering the courage to set foot on the pathway and begin walking it is altogether another thing. Perseverance to stay on the pathway, once we’ve discovered it, once we’ve started on our way, is something else entirely. What else, though, can we do? What other real choice do we have once our vessel has been divinely fitted with what it needs for a successful voyage?

[1] Matthew 15:14

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Monastic Action

So much of life in this natural world, perhaps even the greatest part of it, is centered in doing. Doing is unavoidable. We will always be doing something. In fact, what we do, how we live and where we go, has a revealing characteristic that really tells on us. What we do defines our preferences in life, whether our mind is on eternal or earthly things.

The Apostle James tells us that faith, unless it is accompanied by action, is no faith at all.[1] God, through divine action, touches our senses in one way or another to enliven faith, an interior unction, within us. We say yes, like Mary[2], to the messenger that speaks to us. We believe the message; we receive the message, even though it doesn’t necessarily make sense to us at the moment.

Christ became a literal reality within the womb of Mary, not because she understood, but because she said yes to the incomparable reality that God is. The idea that Christ chooses to make his residence within us, to reveal himself to others through us because of our interior semblance to him, is, in my own mind, the keynote of Scripture and the message of the Church.

This interior presence is not something merely symbolic. It is as literally real as the human presence of Christ growing in Mary’s Virginal womb. It is revealed, proclaimed, and received in the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist – in the real and present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ cloaked in the transformed garments of bread and wine.

His life is given to us. Our life becomes yielded to his in ever deepening dimensions as our personal faith filled response to the divine action that touches our senses. Here, in the realm of deepening our interior dimensions, is where we discover the hard work of monastic action in simple awareness.

This is an unending work, one that is never completed until we are at last standing in the literal presence of the Glorified Christ, the work spoken of by the anonymous fourteenth century mystic whose writing forms the heart of centering prayer and should form the heart of all prayer.

“The simple awareness of my being is all I desire, even though it must bring with it the painful burden of self and make my heart break with weeping because I experience only self and not God. I prefer it with its pain to all the subtle or unusual thought and ideas man may speak of or find in books … For this suffering will set me on fire with the loving desire to experience God as he really is.”[3]

[1] James 2:14-26
[2] Luke 1:26-38
[3] The Book of Privy Counseling, Ch. 14, para. 3

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monastic Study

It is not my place to look for or find fault with or criticize the Order that so graciously received me into it as an Oblate. I must, though, endeavor to understand its movement and progress over the course of history, take into account its reforms, attempt to keep an objective focus, and distill all of this into its essential essence as a spiritual tonic in an age where thousands of voices are hawking their miracle oils on the street corners of life.

The words written by Paul to Timothy speak to me in the context of the aforementioned. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”[1] Studying is not an option. It is an imperative, especially considering that the Rule of St. Benedict is also the guiding rule for the Cistercians and the Carthusians – reforms aimed at returning to stricter interpretations and applications of the rule of the Founding Father of all Benedictines.

I must however admit, at this point in what I consider yet to be my own juvenal lay-monastic development, that I am much more drawn to the silent, contemplative life of the Cistercians and Carthusians than I am to the worthy educational task undertaken by Abbeys of the Order of St. Benedict. It was, after all, in reading Merton that I found myself being led out of the wilderness and toward monastic spirituality. This, though, is something inherent within the realm of my own discernment process, in understanding my own charismatic graces, and in no way implies anything scathing toward the charismatic graces of this blessed Order and Abbey where I made and intend to keep my Oblate Promise.

It takes all of us, living within any religious society, to complete and complement that society.[2] The various parts receive the necessary graces to fulfill their role in completing and complementing the whole of this society. Studying and understanding the Rule has a central role in the development of my social graces as an Oblate. So does studying and understanding the Scriptures. I can’t divorce myself from studying and understanding Sacred Tradition. I can’t negate the importance of the offerings of the Sages and Saints of the ages.

To avail myself to these, to gain from their wisdom, necessarily means that I view myself as a fledgling modern day disciple, as a student of masters whose knowledge and contemplative spirituality far exceed my own. This does nothing to detract from the validity of my own contemporary experience. To the contrary, it insures that my own contemporary experience has a solid and proven foundation to support it.[3]

[1] 2 Timothy 2:15
[2] 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
[3] Matthew 7:24-27

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Benedict's School

The importance of academic garnering, gathering all the information we can about a topic or field of expertise whether through private activity or collegial engagement, should be admirably viewed. Learning and literacy are crucial elements in personal development. It comes as no surprise to me that Benedictine monasteries, early on, became centers for learning and continue that tradition in our modern setting. Education can be a lucrative business, one much more glamorous than milking cows and making cheese.

This gives me cause to pause and wonder.

Personal development, in the mind of Benedict, is not limited. It is transcendent. It makes room for the professor in the classroom and the plowman in the field. It takes into consideration the aptitude of the individual but refuses to weigh individuals on the scales of social strata. It does not unjustly reward those who have social means or segregate and punish those who do not.

One of the things that impresses me about St. Benedict is that he insists on the commonality of all who embrace the Rule and enter into monastic profession. None are considered as least. None are considered as best. All are equally important. All are equally valued. The sons of the rich put on the same habit, eat the same meager food, participate in the same manual labor and sleep on the same straw mattresses as the sons of the poor.

More that causes me to pause and wonder.

Benedict refers to his infant Order as a school for the Lord’s service[1] where we learn to listen with the ears of the heart.[2] What does this mean in the Saint’s mind? What is this school being established by Benedict?

“It is the natural place for baptized human beings who have become children of God and disciples of Christ. Once the Church, our mother, has provided us with this new birth in Baptism, the task of the monastic school is to educate us in the life of perfection according to the Gospel. The baptistery leads to the monastery. In the monastery, we do nothing our whole life long but listen to Christ and obey his lessons.”[3]

[1] RB Prologue 45
[2] RB Prologue 1
[3] Adalbert de Vogue, Reading Saint Benedict, p.34

Friday, November 21, 2008

Monastic Piety

To live as a true lay apostle[1], to take seriously the promise that I signed on the altar of the monastery before the Sacred Presence, necessarily involves a constant vigilance on my part. It is a vigilance that takes deeply within the heart, mind, and soul the words of Christ when he says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”[2]

If I fail to make a conscious effort to daily die to myself, to the false self that I, and the rest of the world around me, can and will make of me, then I live unto myself; I live for pseudo-sanctified versions of vanity and vain glory. Without the conscious effort of daily self-crucifixion, even the good that I do has an inordinately selfish end, raises the false self up on a pedestal, makes me the object of the good that I do. I become a miserable counterfeit, dressed in the right outward garments and looking the part, but not truly the real item.

Monastic spirituality, particularly the spirituality of the contemplative Benedictine orders, calls me to a pietistic focus different than any that I’ve ever been familiar with along the varied paths of my Christian journey. Although the world and sadly a large portion of the Christian world no longer consider this form of spirituality vogue, it still, nonetheless, stands at the summit of Christian being. It still stands and offers to the world a standard, a model, an ideal of piety - of what it means to renounce self in order to follow Christ more perfectly.[3]

I see more clearly, I make a much more personal application of the scene where Christ turned over the tables and proceeded to drive out the profanation of the money-changers,[4] calling them thieves that pilfered and robbed. It is me. It is this temple[5] that needs constant attention - the constant and continual cleansing action that comes in the development of a more genuine piety centered in contrition and sacramental reception.


[1] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Sec. A, para. 3
[2] Luke 9:23
[3] Matthew 16:25
[4] Luke 19:45-48
[5] 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Pearl

“I feel like a thief and a murderer who has been put in jail and condemned for stealing and murdering all my life, murdering God’s grace in myself and in others, murdering Him in His image. I have broken out of the jail in which I lay justly condemned and have rushed even into the place of the King Whose Son I murdered, and I implore the mercy of the Queen who sits here enthroned . . .”[1]

Life. We live it. Its shape is generously, if not altogether, determined by what we see, think, and do. Our own contingent being is influenced and conditioned first by inherited significant others, then by those significant others whom we chose to emulate, and later by the self-perpetuating nature of our collective personal choices and determinations.

We do, indeed, arrive at a personal crisis, more likely a series of personal crises, when we realize how wrong we’ve been, how wrong trusted others have been. Merton’s honesty about himself appeals strongly to me. I can relate to him. He was, in his early life, as much of a scoundrel as me. His choices, my choices, as young men pilfered and profaned our being. We murdered God’s grace in ourselves and others.

It takes more than strength and cunning to break out of the fortress of a false self. It takes the divine action of grace that comes through earthquakes and visiting angels to release us from the prisons that we, and others, build around us before we can walk in the light and fresh air of freedom where truth reigns supreme.[2]

It is truth, alone, that possesses the potential to set us free, into a freedom that possesses, at one and the same time, the potential to irritate and aggravate some while encouraging and inviting others.[3] We cannot walk in the light of truth without paying what may appear to us to be a hefty price for the privilege. But we gladly pay the price knowing that not paying the price will only incur a deeper interior misery that we would rather not live with.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”[4]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, entry on April 7, 1941, his first impression of Gethsemani.
[2] Acts 5:17-19 and 16:25-26
[3] John 8:32
[4] Matthew 13:46

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Discernment

Intuition. Aha. Flash. Revelation. Inspiration. Curiosity. Something itching deep within us that we know is there but can’t quite scratch but know we must scratch. A combination of these, plus an edge of fear.

“Sometimes we see a kind of truth all at once, in a flash, as a whole. We grasp it in a block, in its wholeness, but not in its details. We see its whole perspective, and as long as this truth stands vividly before us, we contemplate it and seem to understand it. We do not understand it at all thoroughly, yet we know it with some certainty, although vague, rough, and in outline. This is especially true of philosophical and religious ideas.

But once this general figure has become our property and, we think, part of us, in this first easy-seeming intuition, and we store it in our minds and take it for granted, then, by a new series of minute, difficult, toilsome steps we begin to find out, elaborately and with a great deal of trouble, different things that are only details of this same big idea, and aspects of it, and parts of it. Thus after seeming to catch the whole idea at once, easily, we go over the whole thing again and rediscover it with great difficulty in all its parts. And this may take months or even years.

We never really begin to understand the idea until this more arduous and discouraging process gets under way and, in this process, we seem to live the idea, working it out in our own experience in the manner appropriate to our own sad, contingent and temporal state where nothing is possessed except successively, in scraps and in pieces.

Yet we always long to possess truth as it is in the Mind of God and He sometimes gives intuitions that seem to imitate, in their completeness, His own knowledge, but their function is to lead us really to know what we think we know from these intuitions, by making them more complete in our own grubbing and rag-picking fashion, after the first intuition. So we sit and think, like men whose houses have burned down grubbing in the ashes for something that might have been saved, until we find some diamond that had been buried in the wall for centuries . . .”[1]

[1] From the Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, entry dated April, 9, 1941, as a young man on an Easter retreat at Gethsemani, discerning his vocation to monastic life.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Self Development

The emphasis that St. Benedict places on continual conversion is something that affects our total being. Certain exterior conditions create an atmosphere that is conducive to an ongoing interior development. The order and structure of routine, spiritual reading and liturgical prayers, responsible work that benefits community, recollection and reflection, silence … all are directed to this end: to foster the possibility of continual conversion.

Putting on a habit, dressing ourselves academically in a new set of ideals, may indeed change our outward appearance, create visual points of identification, and provide a sense of attachment and belonging. I’m reminded, though, that there was a time when embracing monastic poverty as a lifestyle also meant the assurance of clothes to wear, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat – motivations in dire times, although not the purest ones, to enter monastic life.

Benedict turned none away although seekers of life in the monastery stood a long time knocking to get in. One, over time, proved their monastic vocation before they were fully and finally accepted. He had no preference for the affluent, something that is evident in the way the offered sons of the noble and poor were received. The character of transferring monks was carefully observed and determined before they were accepted. Priests of the monastery were expected to continue progressing toward God in all humility.[1]

Garb and position, obviously in Benedict’s mind, do not make a man. Who we are as created beings is not determined by what we do in the world. The inverse is a more accurate measurement of the individual. What we do in the world is determined by who we are.

We live, as pilgrims on a journey to a far distant destination, with an intense focus on deep interior self development. In this sense, in a sense that keeps eternal values in mind, we begin to see, can’t help but see, our greatest necessity - our need for continual conversion. This important self development is an ever present project that is never complete, always ongoing.

To live “as Christ” is not an easy proposition, especially when we consider that “the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.”[2] We like to pick and choose, select only those portions that we can easily assimilate and set aside, or rationalize and explain away, those portions that dig at the roots of our human condition.

[1] RB 58 - 62
[2] Prologue 35

Friday, November 14, 2008

Renaissance

Experience is our greatest teacher, at least it should be, and it can be when we invest ourselves in becoming investigators of truth, students of history. Without the weight of truth, without the ballast of history, we can easily lose our center. Experience, alone, can be likened to a hot air balloon adrift in an unstable atmosphere filled with contrary currents and constantly changing thermal conditions.

The 14th – 16th centuries had their Renaissance when enlightenment supposedly came of age. Individualism was exalted. Art and architecture flourished. More than a few moral restraints were repressed and abandoned in the new light that caused older archaic thought and practice to pale. The social setting was ripe for someone in the religious realm to come along and oppose the Catholic Church and that is precisely what happened when Martin Luther, born into a peasant family in 1483, entered onto the scene.[1] Luther wasn’t the first. He just happened to prevail in his efforts.

The rest of that story is written indelible in history, generously defended by Protestants and as generously opposed by Catholics. It’s obvious that Luther had some legitimate undeniable concerns. These concerns, however, were not unique to Luther’s thought processes. They were already being taken into consideration by conservative Catholic reformers[2] whose views did not include undermining the interior unity of the Church. It’s also rather obvious, at least to me, that the developing social mindset of that time was Luther’s chief assistant in the reforms that he led, reforms that have not ceased, purportedly in the name of God, to perpetuate their schismatic nature over the course of these several centuries.

The existentialism of the past two centuries, a hybrid Renaissance, while more people than not elevate this body of ethical thought to higher planes than it deserves, exacerbates the moral dilemma of modern humanity. Aware of this ethical school of thought or not, name it for what it is or not, existentialism has rolled over modern society, Christendom included, like a giant breaking tsunami.

In an existential society there is no longer any such thing as immorality. Morals and virtue are no longer crowned as the most desirable human qualities. Since amorality, in the forms of individualism and individual rights reign, those who seek to live morally and virtuously are viewed as out of step with the times, put down, ridiculed. Gag-orders, new laws legislated that reflect the mindset of the social times, are written and placed into effect.

Despite the lessons of history, there is no need for moral restraints because morality is no longer an issue. Existential society becomes nothing more than disjointed and expressed individualism. It is no longer a cohesive unit formed around a core of moral values and Christian virtues. Existential reality, played out to its end, is nothing more than empty individualistic anarchy. Perhaps this is an extreme portrayal of existentialism. Perhaps, though, given the potential of humanity for good and for destruction, it is not.

[1] James H. Robinson’s History of Western Europe, first printed in 1902, does justice in telling the story in chapters 24 – 28.
[2] Ibid, Ch. 28

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Seeking God

Once upon a time, the story begins, some seekers from the city asked the local monastic a question:

“How does one seek union with God?”
And the Wise One said, “The harder you seek, the more distance you create between God and you.”
“So what does one do about the distance?” the seekers asked.
And the elder said simply, “Just understand that it isn’t there.”
“Does that mean that God and I are one?” the disciples said.
And the monastic replied, “Not one. Not two.”
“But how is that possible?” the seekers insisted.
And the monastic answered, “Just like the sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and the song. Not one. Not two.”[1]

When we approach life as a spiritual pilgrimage, it doesn’t take long before we conclude that pilgrimage indeed involves some difficult work, some hard going. We are, after all, seeking God in a world that always seems to run interference. There will never be a shortage of allegorical washouts, rock and mud slides, cold winds, blistering heat … things we tend to think of as obstacles to our journey rather than essential elements of it.

We have a tendency to look, after all, for God in what we perceive to be perfections, in successes, in models and terms that are measurable according to our own conditioned and perceived ideals. When others fail to measure up to these ideals, it is easy to accuse and condemn them. When we personally fail to measure up to these ideals, it is easy to rationalize and justify ourselves.[2]

“We are warmed by fire, not by the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our being, not in our outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.”[3]

Here is where the work really begins and ends … in the depths of my own being. This is the hardest of work. This is the most avoidable work. It’s always easier to measure the shortcomings of others, to measure my progress by the standards set by the failures of others, than it is to look within the depths of my own contingent being where I realize that I am as much a part of the problem with humanity as anyone else.[4]

[1] As told by Joan Chittister, OSB, Wisdom Distilled From The Daily, p.195
[2] In using any language that may remotely appear inclusive (we, our, ourselves, etc.), no intent is made to include other’s experiences. I write exclusively of myself. Here, though, the proverb is apropos. “If the shoe fits.”
[3] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 117
[4] Matthew 7:1-5

Monday, November 10, 2008

Creative Fidelity

It’s a little over a mile from where I grew up to where I now live and in March of next year there will be 55 years of time between the year of my birth and the calendar year of life that I will enter into. It’s only a short distance, a short drive, between these two geographic points on the map. But it’s been a long, long road replete with many difficult learning experiences, quite a few mistakes in judgment, more closet skeletons than I care to admit, circumstances aplenty that I could use as excuses, as obstacles too difficult to overcome.

I review the past and wonder how I have possibly survived it. I try to envision the future and imagined glimpses of it, based on where I am now in my natural and spiritual journeys, contain more unknown elements than familiar ones. There is more that I don’t know about future destinations and points of arrival than I know. I only know that I’m slowly traveling, heading in a certain direction, into a future that refuses to disclose the elements and events pertaining to my life. This is a little frightening. It is, at the same time, tremendously stimulating.

This, I think, is the nature of pilgrimage. We know where we want to go. We act in faith on what we sense to be true. We travel in hope despite the unknown, despite the dangers, despite the fact that our going makes us vulnerable. Yet, in the depths of our being, fidelity and its calm assurance bids us peace and continues to lure and woo us. Our steps are slow as we ascend and descend the steeps and grades.

“The fact is that when I commit myself, I grant in principle that the commitment will not again be put into question. It at once bars a certain number of possibilities; it bids me invent a certain modus vivendi which I would otherwise be precluded from envisaging. Here there appears in a rudimentary form what I call creative fidelity. My behavior will be completely colored by this act embodying the decision that the commitment will not again be questioned. The possibility which has been barred or denied will thus be demoted to the rank of a temptation.”[1]

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
And both that morning lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”[2]

The slowness of our pilgrim journey makes us ever more aware of our surroundings, excites our senses, sharpens our awareness. We remain committed despite. We remain committed because. We remain committed even though it may not seem rational or make sense to anyone else. Though we don’t know what we will encounter on the way, where the path leads as it wanders through unfamiliar terrain, we know we are on the right path. An inner conviction, an inner confidence, continues to whisper one word. Onward.

[1] Gabriel Marcel, French Philosopher, 1889-1973
[2] From “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Words

“Nonviolent Himalayan bees: after one had lit on me quietly three times without stinging, I let it crawl on my head a while, picking up sweat for some eclectic and gentle honeycomb, or just picking up sweat for no reason. Another crawled on my hand and I studied it. Certainly a bee. I could not determine whether it was stingless, or just well behaved.[1]

I can stand to take a lesson from the Himalayan bees that Merton encountered on his trip. They showed up unannounced, traveled around his personal landscape, picked up something they were apparently interested in, and then went on their merry bee way. Merton knew that he had been visited. Both Merton and the bees benefited by the encounter. Merton wasn’t stung. The bees weren’t smacked.

It’s really hard for us humans to always say things in a way so that those who hear us feel no sting in our words. Try as we may, even well intentioned words, the best well intentioned words, always possess the potential to be misunderstood, hold the possibility to inflict rather than heal, repel rather than attract, divide rather than unite.

Words. They are the best and the worst that we have to offer. We do need to be careful how, when, and where we say things but, at the same time, I can’t help but to think that a greater tragedy occurs when we consciously dumb down what we are saying simply for the sake of not upsetting anyone. That is, in my opinion, as great a tragedy as scourging and scathing with words, a weapon that I was once proficient with in my earlier fundamental tradition, a practice that I am no longer at all fond of.

Merton’s bees were still bees. They did not change their character simply because they were walking around on a strange head or hand. I’m not an authority on Himalayan bees. Perhaps they were a kind that was stingless. Perhaps, in the Himalayas, the bees had no reason to fear Merton even though his appearance in the flesh was obviously not one they were accustomed to seeing.

In an informal talk given in Calcutta, Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”[2]

This, I think, is the true quest of monastic spirituality … to discover and recover the true essence of who I am and to live in the aroma of this essence. There will always be an assortment of fragrances wafting about me as I pursue this quest, some of them not so pleasant to others, particularly those fragrances that have a way of defining existing and unavoidable dogmatic, doctrinal, and theological differences.

These important differences in one another, undeniably discerned through spoken and written words, demand to be respected more than they deserve to be ridiculed and defied. These differences, though more often serving as polarizing agents, offer an opportunity for dialogue, an opportunity for friendly discussion[3], an avenue that leads toward a deeper understanding, the most fruitful pathway that leads toward recovering our original unity.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 53
[2] ibid, p. 308
[3] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Section A, para. 2

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Day After

His was a deeper emotion, one that didn’t originate in shallower levels of his being. His emotion flowed out of a well of experience that included generations of racial oppression, its roots in a terribly dark time in this country’s history, a well marked by an often misunderstood lifetime of working toward civil rights and dignity.

I’ve seen him hundreds of times in pictures and on television but only once, at this close distance, in person. That was a few months ago when we traveled to Selma to participate in the annual Bridge Crossing memorial as part of a course in social justice. I had never seen him cry and I was quite moved last night as I watched tears wet the face of Jesse Jackson in Chicago at what can only be described as one of the most, like it or not, monumental celebrations in the history of American culture – the landslide election of an African-American, Senator Barack Obama, to the highest political office in this country.

It’s going to be especially interesting to watch as this new chapter in the life of American culture is written one page at a time, particularly from an observation seat in what was once the capital of the Confederacy, a place where racism is still very much alive, a place where skin pigmentation and ethnic backgrounds fragment and color personal perception and acceptance more than anything else. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a divine statement being made in the fact that America now has its first non-Caucasian President, and not just any non-Caucasian but an African-American.

Will this heal the racial schisms in this country or will it serve to heighten tension in areas and pockets historically known for racial bias and bigotry? I’m almost afraid to offer an opinion except to say that morality is an essential element in our lives that cannot come though legislation. It arises from the depths of an interior conversion that calls us to Someone other than ourselves, to Someone who does not measure and weigh us according to the color of our skin.

Jesus loves the little children.
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow. Black and white.
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

My Sunday school teachers taught me this song before I could read. It’s funny. A sad sort of funny, if there is such a thing. There are still no African-American children, or Hispanic-American children, or Asian-American children … only Caucasian-American children … attending that Sunday school.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

It seems to me that there is something very fitting about the elections being held on Tuesday. Tuesday, as well as Friday, happen to be the days of the week when we are encouraged to meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries, the events in the life of Christ that most remind us of the pitiful shape of our human condition – our own condition, our personal and national condition, something that we don’t like to think about and honestly don’t care to confess.

It is also fitting that morning prayers today focus intently upon mercy, faithfulness, peace, and justice. One of its prayers says, “Show us your mercy, Lord; our misery is known to us. May no evil desires prevail over us, for your glory and love dwell in our hearts.”[1]

A bit of ancient wisdom tells us, “Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.”[2] This ancient proverb has been variously translated. Justice. Righteousness. Virtue. The fruit of sin, the second part of the proverb, are also described by an assortment of words. Regardless of how we translate the Hebrew into our vernacular, it’s obvious that sin, and sinful behavior, are clear cut issues that have a devastating effect both personally and nationally.

Today will be a telling day.

Before its end there will be a large camp of rejoicing. There will also be a large camp of fellows bemoaning their defeat and considering how to overcome it in four years. One camp promises more, quick, exponential changes and personal freedoms that, in my opinion, support and further the miserable condition that characterizes what was once considered “one nation under God.” The other promises to hold on to at least some of the important moral vestiges of the past and intimates what many consider to be more of the historical national ideal. Either way, with either victor, the days and years ahead are replete with significant personal challenges for the little man, or woman, endeavoring to live simply and prayerfully, avoiding, as much as possible, all the political friction.

We awoke to a grey, dismal, overcast day. I can only pray that our local climatology contains no prophetic foreboding.

[1] LOH, Tuesday, Week III
[2] Proverbs 14:34, Douay-Rheims Translation

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Trust

One of the dangers of modern life is the tendency to contemporize everything, to see life only in the context of the here and now, disregarding how life in the here and now will affect the future, paying no heed to the revealed truths and lessons of antiquity. Life, in these contemporary times, has more than a tendency to become a complicated mess, one that possesses an unstable nature that is easily adversely molded by life’s changing contemporary scenery.

Merton’s insight into monastic life, when we realize that, as a community, a monastery is a microcosm of the Church, shows us something important about life in the here and now, even when this here and now is lived out in the secular world. It filters down to where we live in our day to day relationships – with God, with our self as we discover this self, in our relationships within our families (another microcosm of the Church), and in the church communities where we gather to worship as faith-communities of believers.

“The monastic Orders are, of all religious Orders, the ones with the most ancient and the most monumental traditions. To be called to the monastic life is to be called to a way of sanctity that is rooted in the wisdom of the distant past, and yet is living and young, with something peculiarly new and original to say to the men of our own time. One cannot become a monk in the fullest sense of the word unless one’s soul is attuned to the transforming and life-giving effect of the monastic tradition. And if this is true everywhere, it is especially true in America – a country in which men are not used to ancient traditions, and are not often ready to understand them.”[1]

I think, and this is largely conjecture on my part, that the primary reason we are not often ready to understand the ancient traditions is due to a lack of trust. We all arrive at this point in time in well pre-conditioned fashion and trust isn’t usually part of the standard equipment. Before we can understand the ancient Christian traditions we have to study them. Before we can trust them we have to understand, or at least begin to understand, them. We simply have to learn, by whatever means, to trust in the ancient traditions of the Church. It has always, and still does, have our best temporal and eternal good in mind.

What Merton is saying is true not only for the monk but also for every fellow pilgrim hoping for their eventual arrival in heaven. It’s obvious that we have to live in our contemporary society. We don’t have another one. This is the world that we must either contend with or conform to. This is the world that we are intended to influence by the lives we live. How we live, the things we say and do, the things we permit or avoid in our lives – all possess the potential to grant permission to others to “go and do thou likewise” whatever that likewise may be.

I’m reminded of something that Jesus said about a millstone.[2] It’s more than a little alarming to think about what Jesus said regarding the millstone when we frame it within the context formed by contemporary theologies, interpretations, and ideologies that fail to take into account a more complete and historical Apostolic testimony. It’s important, and growing more important each day, for me to put my trust, root my sanctity, in the safe and sure wisdom of the distant Christian past.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 148
[2] Matthew 18:6

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Papa's Prayers

He was one of the most impressive figures of this past century, if not the most impressive one. By God’s grace he lived through tragedies and crises that were daunting, always encouraging, always pointing people toward hope, always tangibly representing Christ in a way that touched hearts and changed the world.

It is a shame for me to admit it, but I didn’t pay much attention to him until after entering the third millennium. I had been, after all, living as one of the “separated brethren” and it wasn’t popular for an evangelical Protestant, let alone one active in preaching and teaching, to go around quoting Papa as an authoritative source. I suppose it all does filter down to a simple issue, one that centers itself in the realm of legitimate spiritual authority. I’m glad that I finally reconciled this issue and put aside my protesting.

His time among us was almost spent when he penned his Apostolic Letter considering the importance of the Rosary. Rosarium Virginis Mariae was signed, “From the Vatican, on the 16th day of October in the year 2002, the beginning of the twenty-fifth year of my Pontificate. John Paul II.” It’s always wise to listen to sage wisdom that comes through those whose final rite of passage is imminently on life’s horizon. They have a way of communicating essentials that cut through all the fluff and glitter that draw us away from what we honestly need to see, hear, and do.

Concerning this prayer, the aged Pontiff says, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort. Twenty-four years ago, on October 29, 1978, scarcely two weeks after my election to the See of Peter, I frankly admitted: ‘The Rosary is my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth. … With these words, dear brothers and sisters, I set the first year of my Pontificate within the daily rhythm of the Rosary.’ Today, as I begin the twenty-fifth year of my service as the Successor of Peter, I wish to do the same.”[1]

From the beginning of his long Pontificate through to the end. Not only while he sat in the Chair of Peter, but throughout the many difficult years of his life and ministry in Poland, the Rosary became and remained his favorite, most important, personal devotional prayer. The daily rhythm of the Rosary became the daily rhythm of his life, a life well lived, a witness and testimony proclaiming to the world the grace of God in Christ.

[1] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, p. 8-9

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Redeeming Time

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”[1]

It was through these words, shown me in a Methodist parsonage on the Kansas prairie nearly a decade ago by a dear friend and fellow Protestant pastor, that I was first introduced to Thomas Merton. I will ever be thankful for that introduction. The words that I read, sitting there on the floor in the middle of the manse living room, although unknown to me at that moment in time, would, not too long after, become part of a long, painful and needed transformation process in my life. It is a process that is still, and ever will be, ongoing although, at this point in time, it doesn’t appear to be quite as dramatic on the surface of life as it was initially.

Time. We only have so much time and none of us know how much of it we have before our own personal measure of it is spent. It is a truth that none can honestly deny. Time, as we know it, as it is measured to us as individuals, always runs out. The sad reality about this truth is that it is too easy to waste the time we have by spending it on things that simply do not matter, simply do not have any eternal value, or provide anything that prepares us for the eventual day when our physical clock will stop and our measure of time will cease.

It is the most precious commodity that we have and in it we discover the imperative to live carefully, walk circumspectly, redeeming what time we do have.[2] Our own personal interior environment depends upon the efforts we invest in harnessing and structuring the time that we have. These efforts will have a determining effect, both interiorly and exteriorly, in the world that is our own life and in the world that surrounds us.[3]

The use of time as a means to acknowledge God’s creative and redemptive activity does not, at least for most people in our modern age, have much appeal. This hasn’t always been the case, and is still not the cast in some instances, if not in actual practice at least in practical theory. Redeeming time through the vehicle of prayer is a legacy given to us by the Church, something handed down to us by our spiritual ancestors from the past.

*One day … Seven Canonical Hours of Prayer.
*Days of the week … Fruitful prayers, particularly those of the Rosary, to pray with their appointed mysteries to contemplate.
*Months of the year … Prayers themed to focus on major mysteries of Church teaching.
*Liturgical Seasons … The fertile seed bed that supports a holistic approach spiritual life.

We are not left without witnesses and examples that direct and lead us so that in each moment of each day we are prepared to receive some seed, some germ of spiritual vitality, falling upon the soil of the soul. Will we ever pray as faithfully and fruitfully as possible? No. Will we ever become masters of time? Probably not. We will always be subservient to it in some degree since we are creatures in time. We can, however, endeavor to live more mindfully, more consciously of the time that we are measured and use time, even minute moments of it, in a way that allows freedom, spontaneity, and love opportunity and a place to grow and flourish.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 14
[2] Ephesians 5:15
[3] Colossians 4:5

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rosarium Virginis Mariae

To live prayerfully in a world so opposed to such a thing is, I think, one of the biggest challenges that any of us face. That is, provided, that we indeed live with a desire to live prayerfully, that we first of all realize the necessity of prayer and endeavor to pray as a habit, as a lifestyle. Face it, the world, for the most part, isn’t at all interested in prayer. It doesn’t revolve around a daily schedule for prayer nor does it wish to despite the fact that all of creation has a cyclical nature, a natural rhythm about it indicative of more than the natural eye can see.[1]

The Church world, on the other hand, believes that personal prayer is an important and integral necessity in the lives of those that believe in and accept Christ as Savior and Lord. The sad reality though, and I say this objectively rather than critically, is that most believer’s lives do not revolve around prayer. I say this as one fellow pilgrim that is endeavoring to live a life of prayer and realizing how difficult it is to follow the Apostle’s injunction to “pray without ceasing.”[2]

Unceasing prayer is a daunting responsibility. It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity, an open door that allows the winds of grace to fill the rooms and corridors of one’s life. We desire to pray because grace has first found its way into our interior closets. We pray because grace bids us to pray. We grow stale and cease to pray because we are often trying to pray in our own strength rather than relying upon grace. Or we grow stale and cease to pray because we set aside or fail to discover forms of prayer that are always faithfully sustainable even when we are unable to rouse in our hearts personal words of prayer.

It’s a truth that I cannot escape. The life that I live in the world will always be a reflection of the life that I live in prayer. “Prayer presupposes an effort, a fight against ourselves and the wiles of the Tempter. The battle of prayer is inseparable from the necessary ‘spiritual battle’ to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ: we pray as we live, because we live as we pray.”[3]

As a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, I’ve discovered that the Rosary is a life changing school of prayer. Its mysteries are what Pope John Paul II referred to as a compendium of the Gospel. “The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium.”[4] This prayerful compendium keeps me focused intently upon the face of Christ, keeps me meditating upon his life, upon his being, and upon the being of his Mother, our Mother. “To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.”[5] It is to enter into the life changing school of prayer with Mary as our teacher. After all, who knew, and who knows, Christ more perfectly than Mary? Who, among all human creatures, received such a generous outpouring of grace as Mary? Who, then, is more qualified to teach us than our Mother?

“By immersing us in the mysteries of the Redeemer’s life, it ensures that what he has done and what the liturgy makes present is profoundly assimilated and shapes our existence. ... This school of Mary is all the more effective if we consider that she teaches by obtaining for us in abundance the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even as she offers us the incomparable example of her own pilgrimage of faith.”[6]

This school of prayer possesses all that is necessary to create an interior atmosphere that makes change possible, making continual conversion a reality rather than just another well-discoursed concept in our library of concepts. It draws us deeper into the mysteries it presents, calls us to levels of commitment far beyond our natural abilities. It leads us to surrender ourselves to grace in measures never before known to us. In this school we hear and listen to the voice of Christ as he bids us “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”[7]

[1] Psalm 19:1-4
[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:17
[3] CCC #2752
[4] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Intro. Sec. 1, para. 2
[5] ibid, p. 10
[6] ibid, p. 19
[7] Mark 6:31

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Conversatio Morum

One day, none of us have the option of choosing when that day will appear, the most significant of all rites of passage will occur. We will, by one means or another, cease to live in this present natural form. All physical realities will cease to deceive and betray, cease to have an effect on our affections. Money and homes, everything we’ve accumulated, even family and friends, will no longer hold our interest. Only one thing will matter.

Eternity will no longer be some ethereal idea, myth, or vague concept. Eternity will become pure reality with no “time” to prepare, make reparation, or amend our life. Death, judgment, heaven or hell. The time that we have now is the time for preparation, reparation, and amendment. Here, in our modern world so filled with conveniences and pleasures, we don’t like to think in such terms. It’s much easier to delude ourselves and pretend that time is on our side, that there is no such thing as eternal consequences.

Ultima Forsan Hora.[1] It will be for someone, perhaps even me.

My first encounter with monastic spirituality began a number of years ago in reading about the Celtic hermits. I was searching for a Christian experience that was much more genuine than what I had known and these folks really caught my interest. They left everything behind. Some crawled into coracles and allowed the wind to carry them to an unknown destination. When it came to rest on some remote, rocky shore they called that place their home, built a crude hermitage, and lived the rest of their lives in prayer. Some wandered on foot until they came to an unknown, remote destination where they built a hermitage and invested their lives in prayer. That initial encounter led me to the Desert hermits and to the development of monasticism in the East. St. Benedict knocked on my heart’s door a few years ago, invited me into the Order of St. Benedict as an Oblate, and I accepted the invitation.

There is a common thread of fidelity that I find foundationally in these expressions of monastic spirituality. It is a wholehearted focus on getting ready to meet God face to face, an encounter where thoughts and motives, actions and deeds, desires and wills will all be laid open, weighed, and judged. There will be no wiggle room, no opportunity for limp excuses or human rationalizations.[2] The whole of Christendom assents to this. I find, however, for all the talk about it, that assentation doesn’t always become life’s aim and goal in the whole of Christendom. The kingdom of the world remains too much within us, often presiding over the Kingdom of God which also resides within us.

“Fidelity to monastic life is an attempt to translate the Latin words conversatio morum. The meaning of this term has foxed scholars and commentators for years. One way of approaching it is to see it as the core element in the monastic commitment, and to examine what that commitment is. Cassian tells us that the monk’s ultimate aim is to come to the Kingdom of God, and that his immediate goal is purity of heart, without which we shall never attain our ultimate aim. A good way of describing conversatio morum is that it is the monk’s commitment to pursuing this goal, through adopting the monastic program of asceticism and prayer, as well as the monastic structure of life which is designed to support that program.”[3]

A program of asceticism, prayer, and a structure of life that supports that program, although it is not easily accomplished outside the monastic enclosure, is nonetheless something that is very attainable. It may require some flexibility but it is certainly not impossible. It is the life of the monk. It is the life of those examples that we are wise to emulate. After all, monks aren’t the only ones scheduled for an appointment to meet God.


[1] Perhaps Last Hour
[2] Hebrews 9:27
[3] The Benedictine Handbook, p. 123


Monday, October 20, 2008

Multiplied Sorrows

I don’t like pain. I don’t care for any of it – emotional or physical - and have endured quite a portion of it over the years of my life. A good share of it I brought upon myself because of my own stupid ignorance and foolishness. The worst of it though has come from others, well intentioned others. I now do the best that I can to avoid pain caused by the good intentions of others. I have to. My own emotional and physical health depends upon it. Sometimes I’m successful. Other times I’m not. There are times when life is simply a collision course and there isn’t a thing we can do to avoid the crash.

The Sorrowful Mysteries remind me that our Lord is intimately familiar with pain and suffering. When I compare my own with his I have nothing to complain about, even those times when well-intentioned others thought they were doing what was right despite the real, painful hardships created by their thoughts and actions. I could name names, times and places but that wouldn’t be very prudent of me.

Suffice it to say that life is not always a bed of roses for a Protestant pastor serving small churches in small communities. People have expectations, a lot of them unrealistic, and when they aren’t met or lived up to the fires can easily and quickly ignite. I think the most painful words I’ve ever listened to were, “Pastor, we think you need to resign so we can call a new pastor.” It’s a pain sharper than pain. Especially when you are sacrificing every way you know how, pouring out your proverbial life’s blood and trying to live and support a family on less than a livable salary.

Jesus encountered rejection and pain in an even more fierce way. Had he met their expectations of the Promised Messiah, they would not have rejected him and subjected him to the brutal physical treatment involved in crucifying him. The Sorrowful Mysteries keep these scenes of Christ’s last hours among us alive in our thoughts. I need to be continually reminded by these scenes, regularly reminded of the terrible pain Christ endured and the ultimate price that he paid for my salvation, our salvation, the salvation of the whole world if it will accept it.

The Agony In The Garden
The Scourging At The Pillar
The Crowning With Thorns
Carrying The Cross
The Crucifixion

Pain multiplied upon pain.

What could he possibly have done to deserve any of this?

He simply said yes to the Divine Will.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[1]

[1] 2 Corinthians 5:21

Friday, October 17, 2008

Liturgy of Life

“The first thing that you have to do, before you ever start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole and learn to live as a unified human person. This means that you have to bring back together the fragments of your distracted existence so that when you say ‘I,’ there is really someone present to support the pronoun you have uttered.”[1]

The liturgy of life, the way we live in the world and influence its environment, will always be a reflection of our depth, or shallowness for that matter, in prayer. Our inner experience, whatever that experience may be, will always overflow into and give dimension to the exterior form that we live, our style of life that is seen and read by others.[2]

Our interior experience, the discovery and development of our unified human person, the realization of the genuine “I,” has nothing to do with modern trends or schools of thought regarding self-awareness and self-justification. It has everything to do with realizing this “I” in the context formed by the revealed truths contained within the mysteries of God. I have to remember that Merton, although he found many parallels between contemplative prayer in the Catholic faith and the devotion of other mystical traditions, lived and wrote out of the rich well of his own Catholic contemplative experience. His own liturgy of life was an essentially Catholic one, a liturgy that, without being offensive, gently and quietly speaks through and between the lines that he penned.

“The word ‘liturgy’ originally meant a ‘public work’ or a ‘service in the name of/on behalf of the people.’ In the Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God.’ Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.”[3] Viewing life as a liturgy is to view it as a privileged participation in Christ’s redemptive purpose in an intimately personal way.

I cannot speak or answer in reply for anyone else. I can only do the best that I can in becoming the best version of the pronoun “I” as I possibly can. I do though find it interesting how this “I” has changed over what is now nearly a decade from the time when I literally ran out of myself as I had become, as I had made of myself, and had allowed others, even well-intentioned others, to make of me.

The changes are so significant that I hardly recognize myself. I know the integral role that prayer, particularly the prayers of the Rosary, has taken and continues to take in these changes. It assists me in praying in a way that helps me avoid getting lost in the vast desert of my own deceptive will and emotions. The same is true concerning the scriptural and scripture based prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours. Through it all, my only hope and prayer is that this liturgy of my own life, replete with fruit that is bittersweet, is an unfolding life-prayer more pleasing to the Lord than any course of life I’ve previously known.[4]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 3-4
[2] 2 Corinthians 3:2
[3] CCC, #1069
[4] Matthew 10:38

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ave Maria

No one Catholic topic sets Protestant Christians on edge quite like this one does. That’s really a shame too. I know because I spent most of my Christian life in a corner of the Protestant arena that was intensely anti-Catholic. It is nothing short of amazing, nothing short of miraculous, how one so opposed to Marian Devotion now sings her praises and seeks her intercession. This, however, is what happens when one honestly tries to understand her being, her role, in the life of the Church, in the lives of all those who profess to know her Son.

“The genuine significance of Catholic devotion to Mary is to be seen in the light of the Incarnation itself. The Church cannot separate the Son and the Mother. Because the Church conceives of the Incarnation as God’s descent into flesh and into time, and His great gift of Himself to His creatures, she also believes that the one who was closest to Him in this great mystery was the one who participated most perfectly in the gift. When a room is heated by an open fire, surely there is nothing strange in the fact that those who stand closest to the fireplace are the ones who are warmest. And when God comes into the world through the instrumentality of his servants, then there is nothing surprising about the fact that His chosen instrument should have the greatest and most intimate share in the divine gift.”[1]

I can’t describe how foolish I felt at first and I am so thankful that Shirli was a good sport about my budding interest, though my interest was of no interest at the time to her. There was a monastery of Korean Benedictine monks close to us in Northern New Jersey and from their gift shop I purchased a simple, wooden beaded Rosary. I had no idea how to pray the Rosary. I simply knew that I wanted to, that I was somehow mysteriously being led in this direction.

Protestants aren’t taught this sort of thing. Fundamental Protestants are, as a matter of fact, taught against it. Since I had no one to teach me how to pray the Rosary, I found the directions on the internet and instantly discovered that I had some memorization to do. With the exception of the Our Father the Rosary prayers are not part of the Protestant frame of reference. As I mentioned earlier, I even had to re-commit to memory the words of the Our Father.

Foolishness isn’t the only thing I initially felt. I also felt the breath of my Protestant Bible College professors breathing down the back of my neck. In my mind I could hear their voices scolding me, telling me that I was falling in over my head into gross, dark heresy. I knew though that this was something that I needed to do. I was drawn to it like a man dying from thirst is drawn to water.

I used the drive to my job on the golf course as a time to work at embedding these prayers in my mind. With one hand on the wheel and my simple Rosary in the other I’d make my way to work, stammering and stumbling through the prayers. The more I ignored the voices from the past screaming in my mind, the more I prayed and meditated on these prayers, the more of a deep stirring and comfort I felt deep within my being – something that is experienced better than it is easily explained.

Some deep, painful spiritual and emotional wounds began finding their healing as I prayed these simple prayers over and over. I’d carry my Rosary in my pocket while working. I didn’t know anything about sacramentals or the origin of the Rosary. I only knew that I was experiencing some needed grace in a wonderful way. I got a little bolder and started praying the prayers while operating the various mowing machines that I worked with. It was, I believe, through praying the Rosary, long before Shirli and I formally entered the Catholic Church, that I first discovered and experienced the love of my Mother, the love that Mary has for me and for all her children.

Ave Maria,
Gratia plena;
Dominus tecum;
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria,
Mater Dei,
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen

Hail Mary,
Full of grace;
The Lord is with thee;
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen
[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 171-172