Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pray For Abbot

“What every man looks for in life is his own salvation and the salvation of the men he lives with. By salvation I mean first of all the full discovery of who he himself really is. Then I mean something of the fulfillment of his own God-given powers, in the love of others and of God.”[1]

There is no shame in admitting that we need guidance in this discovery and in navigating the often turbulent and treacherous waters of life. So much is changing so fast that stability of any sort seems like a fantasy any more. No sooner than the ink is dry on the latest self improvement book another is on the market promising even greater levels of fulfillment and personal prosperity.

The printing presses keep rolling not because people who think they are leaders are writing what they think. The presses keep rolling because people are buying what other people think. People, searching for the missing ingredients in their lives, turn to life coaches, spiritual directors, and mountains of books by modern authors – all of them saying “I’ve got the answer and can supply what you are looking for.”

In choosing the life he lived, and in setting forth what we know as the Rule of St. Benedict, Benedict set examples in place that have not changed in value over the course of fifteen hundred years. Nor will they change because they are so deeply rooted in the practical practice of Scripture. His life and his Rule establish an indelible set of footprints in the shifting sands of life without respect to the times or age in which one finds himself.

This, in my own search for salvation and its inherent stability, is the kind of leadership that I need. It is leadership with a paper trail that leads back to the foundations of antiquity. It doesn’t vacillate or pat its foot in time with modern rhymes or rhythms. It will be as valid and offer as much hope in the 22nd century as it was and did in the 6th when Benedict lived and wrote.

Chapter 2 of the Rule of St. Benedict discusses the qualities of the Abbot who is understood, in the likeness and image of Christ, to be the father of the family that he leads by a two-fold teaching – by his word and personal example. “He wrote only briefly about the cenobites, but he praised them because they waged their spiritual warfare ‘under a rule and an abbot.’ So now he looks at this question of authority, both how we are going to live under authority and also how we are going to exercise it. This is one of the most carefully devised chapters in the Rule (supplemented by Chapter 64), and it gives a wonderful portrait of the abbot, the man who is the model and example, both in his attitudes and in his actions, of how any of us should handle authority.”[2]

Grave. I think this is the one word that best describes the level of responsibility laid onto the shoulders of the one called Abbot. The opening words to this chapter begin with gravity. “To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the abbot must always remember what his title signifies and act as a superior should.”[3] The next thirty nine verses of the chapter are filled with gravity. All forty verses paint a self portrait of Benedict as he stood in the position of leadership. They show what he expects of others who follow in his footsteps by wearing the title of Abbot. This is no small, light task.

The first time I saw Abbot Cletus I really felt intimidated. There was, after all, a day in the history of monasticism that this man’s word could have my food rations cut, have me whipped, or have me excommunicated for refusing to amend my ways. Those were different times, harsher times, that often required harsh measures. Now here I was knocking at the gate hoping to be accepted as an Oblate at the monastery and the last thing I wanted to do was to say or do anything that would be out of place.

In my infantile beginnings I saw the Abbot in a disciplinary role. That understanding broadened a lot over the year of my candidacy. During that year I studied the Rule more. I visited the monastery on retreats. I corresponded several times with the Oblate Director who is also the Prior of the monastery. I also met regularly with other Oblates and a Benedictine priest who directs us locally. I began to see the Abbot as a father rather than as a disciplinarian.

I was making my way out of the monastery church and respectfully greeted and shook his hand. He looked me in the eyes and asked how the retreat was. After a brief exchange of words he then said to me, “Pray for Abbot.” I do pray for Father Abbot. His is not an easy calling. He is looking for his own salvation and the salvation of others just as I am, just as many others are, but he is accountable for and will answer for so much more.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, xv
[2] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 24
[3] RB 2:1

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kinds

Benedict tells us, “There are clearly four kinds of monks.” He then goes on to label and define these kinds. [1]

Although Benedict is primarily concerned with those who profess to be monks, it doesn’t take any stretching of the imagination to see how these definitions are applicable to life outside the monastic enclosure. Distilling these four classifications it’s easy to see that there are:

(1) those who are willing to admit that, in order to combat their own weaknesses, they need the accountability that comes in community, (2) those who have matured in the monastic community and are able to stand alone in mortal combat against the enemy of their souls, (3) those who write their own rules as they go, (4) those who are always drifting from place to place looking for an easy meal.

I like to think that I’m a strong person. But the truth of the matter is that I’m just another weak, struggling human being trying to make my way through this life and hoping to do it in a way that insures eternal safety. I do have moments that are indicative of some degree of spiritual maturity (2). I have to admit though that I still have plenty of restlessness in me (4), that it’s easy for me to make stabs at rationalizing my decisions and actions (3), that I need community wherein I am held in accountability (1).

Benedict, in addressing these kinds, is addressing me. I think too, since he is addressing inherent qualities in human nature, that he is addressing all of humanity to some degree. All of humanity is searching for its identity and purpose. All of us are on a quest for meaning in life. Sadly, it’s easy to look for meaning in places and through ways that devastate our true identity and cloud the true meaning of life.

“Our life, as individual persons and as members of a perplexed and struggling race, provokes us with the evidence that it must have meaning. Part of the meaning still escapes us. Yet our purpose in life is to discover this meaning, and live according to it.”[2]

Benedict was not, by any modern understanding or qualification, a psychologist. But he knew human nature. He knew what stands in the way of realizing a truly meaningful life. He lived according to this understanding and taught others how to live it as well. 1500 years later, men and women are still discovering and mining the claims of Benedict's "little school."

David

[1] RB Ch. 1
[2] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, xi

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Sure Path

“Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” [Prologue 48-49]

The fear of the unknown is daunting. It keeps many souls from taking the first steps that begin a journey along a pathway that, though it is replete with uncertainties, is more certain and sure than any other. In our modern times there aren’t a lot of people traveling this pathway so there aren’t a lot of noticeable signs of foot traffic. It is, however, a well worn pathway. Many have traveled this way before us. It is a tried and true pathway that will, if one remains on it, lead to eternal safety at the end of the journey.

What we realize eternally, when we draw our final mortal breath at the end of the pathway, is certainly worth the investment of ourselves. The reward of faith and obedience, however, is not something that we have to wait for. It is something that we begin realizing early on. Although the pathway is difficult at times, it is not grueling.

There is nothing about traveling this pathway that is despairing. It may, at first, appear restricting while its tutelage refines our focus, as it causes us to pay attention to where our feet are, as it makes us mindful of who we are and how we live. These, however, are important milestones set in place to measure how far we’ve traveled, how much we’ve matured on this journey. Without these milestones being laid down as evidence of continual conversion in our lives, we can only wander about is small little circles that honestly lead no where.

In her commentary on the Rule Esther de Waal writes, “ As the sympathetic and encouraging teacher, Benedict invites the disciple by promising that the regime of this school will be a reasonable one, and that what at first may seem difficult will, in the long run, through stability and not trying to escape, become second nature. The means and the end are the same – love. If Benedict is strict at the start, the purpose is to safeguard love. But then as we progress in the way, we shall find ‘our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love’ [49] surely one of the most incomparable phrases of all time.”[1]

David
[1] A Life Giving Way, p. 15

Friday, March 21, 2008

Going to School

“Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service.” [Prologue 45]

All of life is a classroom. Every day is filled with opportunities to learn. Every day is filled with opportunities for observation. Every day greets us with assignments and tests of one sort or another. Some we do well at. Others we do poorly at. Occasionally something comes along that we fail miserably at.

Life is viewed by Benedict as a process of lifelong learning where degrees of spiritual maturity are recognized in the lives of students and honored by all but, at least in his day, not articles that are printed, framed, and hung on walls where they can pridefully call attention to those who acquire them. He thinks of the monastery as a school where those enrolled live in an obscure residency for the duration of their natural lives. [Prologue 50] Then, once physical life is gone, they are laid to rest in a small, obscure cemetery where their remains await the coming of the Lord.

Referring to the monastery as a “school ‘for’ rather than ‘of’ seems best to catch the idea that the monastery is a place where the monks both learn how to serve the Lord and actually do so.” [1] This implies that “the monastery is the place where Christ continues to teach his disciples the baptismal renunciation of sin and the ways that lead to the repose of eternal life. It implies that life in the monastery is a service to Christ, the Lord.” [2]

Our surroundings, the basic structure of our individual classrooms, do not necessarily have to remotely resemble a monastic enclosure for us to benefit from the curriculum taught in the school. There is something of an academic nature inherent in this school [RB 73] and Benedict encourages academics as part of the learning curve. His first emphasis though is not academically oriented. His first emphasis is more on the intuitive nature. Listen, he tells us, with the ear of your heart. [Prologue 1]

It is, after all, in the interior regions of the heart where we hear the still, small voice of God. It is here, in the regions of the heart, where our wills are first exercised. It is here, in the depths of the heart, that we are able to say “I believe” [Romans 10:10] despite all that would try to convince us otherwise.

David

[1] RB 1980, p. 165, Commentary notes.
[2] Ibid

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Faith and Good Works

“See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12).” [Prologue 20-21]

These are, to say the least, trying and difficult times that we are living in. It would also be accurate to say that these are terribly deceptive times. These times aren’t so different from those in which St. Benedict lived. We do have modern amenities that were unknown in his day but the same base realities, those that beckon to direct the course of the moral lives of people, haven’t changed an iota. They’ve been around since the fall of man and will remain with us until the end of time. There are no new sins. There are only old ones repeated over and over.

Benedict, as a good teacher, was always careful to direct his followers toward the Teacher of teachers, toward the one who is the Way of Life and who came to show us the way to life. [John 10:10] The assurance of a safe eternal destination is indeed comforting and we should never lose sight of the fact that either heaven or hell will be the eventual eternal destination of every soul. With an eternal destination in mind it is only right to live respectively in the present. Faith is naturally followed by good works.

What are these good works that naturally follow faith and what are we doing to fulfill them?

There are, first of all, the three eminent good works that we find in Christ’s teachings – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. There are the several corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, and burying the dead. There are also the several spiritual works of mercy – admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, and praying for the living and the dead.

This list of good works, considered as part of an Examination of Conscience from The Fathers of Mercy and stamped with the Imprimi Potest, takes us quickly and directly to where we really are in actually living out the expectations of the teachings of Christ. It is to a selfless life that Christ calls us, one that causes us to grow in and extend the compassion of Christ toward those around us. It is a life centered in Christ and not in ourselves. It is a life of continual conversion as we are confronted with the honest realization of who we are and how we live in light who Christ is and how he lived.

Benedict reminds us that we are called to Christ’s kingdom, that one day we will see him face to face, and that we need to mindfully live in a way in the present that is deserving of his grace and eternal favor.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mel Is Gone

Close to twenty years. That’s how long I’ve known him and both of us will be firsts to admit that we’ve not always seen eye to eye on a lot of things – either practically or theologically. I think, in some ways, we were both thorns in the other’s flesh. There was, as well, a certain level of mutual appreciation at the center of our relationship. For the past four years we were neighbors. Now he’s gone. No, he didn’t die. He simply up and moved away to another state six months ago.

Now his house sits empty with a for sale sign in the front yard. I’m happy for him because he wasn’t happy after retiring and I hope that some happiness and a sense of completeness is part of his new life. At the same time I feel a little ripped off. It’s a feeling that stays with me. I’ll never see Mel walking out to pick up his morning paper again. He’ll never again ride back and forth across his yard on his mower. We’ll never again stand in the shade of a pecan tree and talk with one another. He was predictable and I generally knew what to expect from him. I miss Mel despite the differences that we shared and I would hope that he feels that same toward me.

Stability is a two-sided coin. The one side has to do with exterior dimensions. The other side has to do with interior realities. This is something that I never gave a lot of thought to before I was introduced to St. Benedict and began exploring the implications and ramifications inherent in stability. Now I spend quite a bit of time thinking about it. Now I realize its connection and importance.

I was always something of a modern day cowboy ready to saddle my horse and move on when things got a little too close. But in all the moving on that I’ve done in my life, and there’s been a lot of it, I’ve never enjoyed a perfect trail or arrived at a perfect destination. It’s always been hard going. Some of the destinations turned out to be ghost towns with wells gone dry. In the going and in the arriving I was always there encountering my own imperfect self and the imperfect selves of others.

I’ve still got a lot of cowboy in me. Trails and destinations still beckon to me but they’ve lost a lot of their luster and I don’t long for them like I used to. I’m learning how to be still now where both exterior and interior dimensions are concerned. I’m learning to be content – both with myself and with the others who surround me. In learning to be still and content I’m discovering again and again that I’m only content with the exterior geography that surrounds me when I’m at one with my own interior landscape.

Benedict’s monks were to remain in the enclosure of the monastery for the duration of their natural lives [Prologue 50]. Here there was no room for rugged individualism or cowboy antics. This stipulation regarding stability was for the good of the individual and the good of the community. It kept the individual involved in the abrasive give and take that often happens when diverse personalities are engaged in community. Benedict, drawing upon the history and wisdom found in the early centuries of monasticism, realized that the pursuing process of continual conversion in the individual would only serve for good and help insure stable longevity in both the individual and in the community.

Although the largest percentage of us do not live in a monastic enclosure, most people will never spend one night in a monastery, there are some very real and important implicit and explicit implications to be found in Benedict’s understanding of stability. We all participate in community in one way or another in our family, parish, work, and social groups and part of the beauty of Benedictine spirituality is that it transcends monastic enclosures. It reaches into, penetrates, and improves the fabric of life wherever it is being lived. And why shouldn’t it? It is, after all, a very practical and applicable interpretation of Gospel values.

Pax Christi,
David


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Let Us Arise

"Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say; It is high time to arise from sleep [Rom. 13:11]." Prologue 8.

It was one of those moments that come and go in an instant. In the length of time that it took to take two pictures with the digital camera the moment was gone and there was no way to call it back or perhaps to ever duplicate it again. Had I not been awake, had I not been attentive to the dawning of a fresh new day, I would have missed out completely on a moment that was seemingly, solely mine - a gift sent especially to me. As it was, I barely had time to open the door, grab the camera, step back onto the front porch, and snap two shots.

St. Benedict's words in verse 8 of the Prologue stir me. They incite me to think. They challenge me to think about how I am so often lethargic, so often dead to the moment in which I am living, so often unaware of how real, present, and mysterious God is. Life so quickly passes us by while we are sleeping and how easy it is to be lulled to conscious sleep by the daily routines and rhythms that are considered by most to be our normal daily duties and activities. In all honesty, we have only this present moment to live. It is the only moment that is real to us. All former moments, though they may be alive in our memory, have passed away and are dead and gone. All future moments are merely a dream and do not yet exist. They may never exist. How, then, are we living in this present moment?

Benedict encourages us, "Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out ...." Prologue 9. The Light that comes from God dims every other light. The voice from heaven causes all other voices to be little more than din. Why would I choose to view any other than the light that comes from God? Why would I choose to listen to the cacophony of resounding and discordant noises that beg for my attention?

We view what we desire most. We listen to what we desire most. To see and listen to God requires us to lay aside our own desires that run contrary to his. Ours desires are often the reflection of an imperfect will. His desires are always born of and the reflection of a will that is a perfect.

Let us arise.

David

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Listen

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.” [RB Prologue 1]

Advice. There seems to be no shortage of it floating around in our post-modern world. Advice is available everywhere we turn. The Ophra’s, Dr. Phil’s, Suze’s, and Benny’s are on every television channel, bookshelf, and magazine rack. Advice is big business. Many are paying a lot of money for advice and others are making a lot of money doling out advice to customer-clients lining up like children at the ice cream parlor hoping to taste the next best flavor. We are after all, as human beings, seemingly on a quest for happiness, peace, and security in a world filled with sadness, fear, and instability.

It was a climate of sadness, fear, and instability that characterized the age in which Benedict lived and worked. His credentials were meager – a hunger for God and enough nerve to dare to seek and trust him in solitude. He was eclectic. He was a student of the models that had gone before him. He looked at what worked and what didn’t. He pared, distilled, and synthesized the best offerings of his day into practical life applications that became a guide for life that is as practical and meaningful today in our modern dysfunctional world as it was those many centuries ago in the dysfunctional world following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

In the preface to the RB 1980, Timothy Fry, O.S.B. writes, “St. Benedict’s times were as turbulent as our own, though for very different reasons. He wrote his Rule primarily for monks, but its sound principles for working together and living together have proved relevant to people of all classes of society through fifteen hundred years.” St. Benedict’s advice is not good because it is old. It is old because it is good.

Being attentive, listening to and following the advice of St. Benedict, opens windows that allow us to see and doors that allow us to enter into a fruitful and meaningful relational dialogue with God. “Listen.” In commenting on the first word of the Prologue, Esther de Waal writes, “I could take that as a summary of the whole of Benedict’s teaching. I could spend the rest of my life pondering on the implications of that one word. It plunges me at once into a personal relationship. It takes me away from the danger of talking about God and not communing with him.”[1]

Listening to St. Benedict, attending carefully with the ear of the heart, leads toward viewing life as a harmonious whole. Benedict understood life in a holistic fashion. He didn’t try to separate it in a way that that said “this is my work life, this is my family life, and this is my spiritual life.” In Benedict’s view these are all one and the same life melded together into one being pursuing God as that life is being even more pursued by God.

Although he was acutely aware of the problems, ills, and sins of the society that surrounded him, he didn’t spend his energy decrying them. He simply and affirmatively set the course of his life in a way that ran contrary to them, a course that began as a hermit in a cave, one that laid the groundwork for and then became what is historically known as Western monasticism.

St. Benedict’s love for and devotion to Christ brought forth a tremendous birthing of monasteries and spiritual renewal. This stability also had a tremendous effect on the social and economic conditions of the European continent. It is rather apparent that people were listening. His invitation still stands, still beckons to us in these early years of the 21st century.

Listen.

Pax,
David

[1] A LIFE GIVING WAY, Esther de Waal, Liturgical Press, p. 6

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Benedictine Spirituality

As an Oblate of St. Benedict, I think of myself as a fundamental Christian. Don't let that scare you because it has nothing to do with the ideas of Post-Reformation fundamentalism. By this I mean that I've returned, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that I am returning, to the basics of the faith, basics that were set forth in an orderly fashion some 1500 years ago by St. Benedict, basics that are as valid today as they were when St. Benedict distilled the best wisdom of his day into the Gospel based Holy Rule of St. Benedict.

In the preface to the 4th Edition of the Manual For Oblates printed by St. John's Abbey Press it says, "The Christians of today have been told repeated by they spiritual leaders that the neo-paganism of today is perhaps more subtle, more dangerous, more widespread than the paganism of Greece and Rome at the time of St. Benedict. In every phase of life do Christians meet danger to their souls - in their amusements, in their books and periodicals, in their educationsl system, in their social life. What is needed desperately is a counter attack that will be effective."

I find it more than interesting that these words are found in a little volume that was last printed in 1955, the year after I was born. 54 years have passed. The dangers noted half a century ago have steeped, fermented, and spread the influence of their intoxicating brew in a way that makes our present early 21st century age even more dangerous.

St. Benedict, the Rule of St. Benedict, and Benedictine spirituality offer us a practical and effective way to make our return to Christ more systematic, more constant in an age where so many sounding chimes, bells, and whistles invite us to move toward them. Personally, after a lot of years spent in denominational and non-denominational settings, many of them in pastoral and other forms of church ministry, I'm no longer looking for new words, new revelations, new ideas, new programs, or new promises of prosperity and the inevitable disappointments and let-downs that have, and will always, come with them. I need form in my spiritual life, form that generates stability and I discover this, and much more, in Benedictine spirituality.

Benedictine spirituality is very simple but it is not simplistic. It offers us a way that is constant, a way that is constantly challenging, a way that will never allow us to settle on our lees and become satisfied to the point of spiritual stagnation. In a world of changing ideals and modern theological adaptations and applications it serves as a tether that holds us secure to the Anchor of our souls.

This blog will focus primarily on the practical and devotional aspects of Benedictine spirituality. These are integrally related to life as we are coming to know it and live it at Homestead Hermitage and Gardens. Spirituality, after all, is who we are. It is part of the parcel. It is the developmental reality of who we are regardless of where we are.

For those interested in simplicity and sustainable micro-farming we have also started a blog at www.homesteadhermitage.blogspot.com .

From Homestead Hermitage and Gardens
David