Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Ladder

“Brothers, divine Scripture calls to us saying: Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted (Luke 14:11, 18:14). In saying this, therefore, it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride.”[1] Benedict goes on, using more Scripture to prove his point, to tell us that pride, in whatever way it manifests itself, is sin to be shunned.

Pride – what a damnable, insidious, and socially accepted thing that we have to deal with! This is the reality that faces us, one that must be faced if we are to move beyond commonplace life in the world, in order to move into the deeper reality of being earthed in the fertile soil of our true selves and in God. “Here we are given one of the most profound explorations into self-knowledge, that true self-knowledge that is not in the least narcissistic but leads me on to the true self and so to God.”[2]

I confess that I’m too easily filled and overcome by pride, the first item on the list of the seven capital (deadly) sins. I need to be often reminded that “In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.”[3] Merton goes on to say, “People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world.”[4]

Life is a struggle and it’s hard to live in the world and use the things of the world without becoming like the world. The current active in the world pulls us along. The economy that is at work in the world keeps us engaged in its life. It harnesses us with its laborious accoutrements whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. Inflation afflicts us with hard burdens. There is always a need for more straw in order to make the necessary bricks that we need to meet life’s demands.

Benedict doesn’t appear to be lessening realities of necessity where day to day life is concerned. Nowhere does he advocate sloth or laziness. Work is as regular and normal an aspect of Benedictine life as prayer is. But even a devoted life of prayer can find itself subjected to pride. Anything done well can become a source of pride. So here in Chapter 7, the longest chapter in the Rule, Benedict addresses Capital Sin Number One with the original twelve step program devised as a means to overcome an otherwise debilitating human problem. He doesn’t call it a twelve step program. He refers to it rather as a ladder that happens to have twelve rungs. It’s not a tall ladder. It is, however, a long way to the top, a lifetime of climbing that involves a lot of stepping up and stepping down.

“In verse 6 Benedict brings us to the image of the ladder, that ancient classical symbol of unity and integration. It reaches from earth to heaven, and for Benedict, of course, the ground on which it was placed was the monastic enclosure, but for those of us outside any religious community, it can just be taken to mean the place of our ordinary life and work, wherever we may find ourselves. It was St. Augustine who gave us those marvelous words, ‘Do you seek God? Seek within yourself and ascend through yourself.’ Like the child now weaned I have to take on the responsibility of growing into my own maturity. There can be no escape and no postponement. It lies with me.”[5]

This isn’t an issue that we can put aside or maneuver around. It is an issue that we are, after all, living out moment by moment, day by day, situation after situation. We are, in all cases, either striving toward some form of self-exaltation or endeavoring toward humility. Striving toward self-exaltation hurls us into a dangerous downward descent. Endeavoring toward humility[6] carries us toward heaven and the very heart of God.

[1] RB 7:1-2
[2] Esther de Waal, Life Giving Way, p. 57
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 47
[4] ibid
[5] Life Giving Way, p. 59
[6] Phil. 2:5-8

Sunday, April 20, 2008

O Be Careful

I remember a song that we were taught in Sunday School when I was a small child growing up. It had to do with being careful of what we said, saw, heard, did, and where we went. The song taught us that our carefulness was necessary because our conversations and actions, being observed by a loving heavenly Father, produced consequences in our lives and in the lives of others.

The simplicity of that little song fits rather perfectly into what Benedict is saying to me in Chapter 6 of the Rule where he sets forth his guidelines regarding restraint of speech. The question arises: Why silence?

“Benedict’s spirituality, if I were to reduce it to one single concept, is that of listening to the voice of God in my life. When God’s voice is drowned out by incessant clamor, whether inner or outer, in whatever shape or form, then continuous dialogue with God becomes impossible. An inner monologue with myself, constant chatter with others, the invasion of the spoken word through the press or television are all the ever-present realities in my daily life over which I need to exercise some sort of discipline if I am to keep any quiet inner space in which to listen to the Word. This is the stillness of the heart, the guarding of the heart, which touches the very deepest levels of my consciousness.”[1]

Silence in solitude plays an important role in my life. It is a need in my life that has always existed although it has only been in the past few years that I’ve recognized my need to give attention to it. Recognizing and beginning to cultivate it came about by what I call a providential accident. A series of deep personal crises, some my own fault and some at the hands of well-intentioned others, caused me to opt for a long season of seclusion. I left pastoral ministry, earned an income mowing grass on a golf course, lived in the thick of people in the Northeast, yet had little to do with most. Considering the vocal interactive life that I’d lived as a pastor, seclusion was itself another crisis that compounded an already long list of crises.

It’s taken decades for me to realize that I’m not the best version of myself without long episodes of silence. Without silence and solitude I get all balled up in my interior life, in my own personal communal life with God. I grow detached from the Source when I am constantly involved, start living more out of my head than in the spirit, and I think this is the terrible crisis that befalls the human race in this post-modern world that we occupy. It’s also terribly easy to justify this mode of constant interaction because it’s the only mode of living that most people know.

I’m reminded of something Merton wrote. “Silence does not exist in our lives merely for its own sake. It is ordered to something else. Silence is the mother of speech. A lifetime of silence is ordered to an ultimate declaration, which can be put into words, a declaration of all we have lived for.”[2]

We live in a world of itching ears and wagging tongues. Itching ears will listen to anything that sounds good on the surface, to anything or anyone offering promises that help cultivate the attitudes and lifestyles of those two categories of monks that Benedict rejected early on in the Rule – modes of living that fill the secular world.

That little song from my early childhood years never received any air-time in my memory until recently. Its opening words now ring in my mind like a bell tolling in a steeple … O be careful. In the end, what will my declaration say to those who know me?

[1] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 51
[2] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p. 258

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Holy Obedience

Obedience, for the sake of being obedient, is a mean taskmaster. It is a whip, a sour scourge, of negativism that carves and scars us. Its ugliness drives others away from us. Obedience, performed for the sake of being obedient, easily sets itself up as a lord that is constantly computing the score of our lives and uses our score as the measuring device that we acquire and use to measure the lives of others around us.

Benedict, in the middle of his chapter on obedience[1], tells us that it is love that impels us to pursue everlasting life.[2] Obedience, born in the bed of love, is a pleasant friend in our lives that causes us to seek and to see truth, the Ultimate Truth. This is truth that challenges and prods. It isn’t complacent and will not, as long as we are honest with it and ourselves, allow us to be or remain complacent.

“The truth I love in loving my brother cannot be something merely philosophical and abstract. It must be at the same time supernatural and concrete, practical and alive. And I mean these words in no metaphorical sense. The truth I must love in my brother is God himself, living in him. And I can only discern and follow that mysterious life by the action of the same Holy Spirit living and acting in the depths of my own heart.”[3] Love can never, will never, cause us harm or injure another.[4]

Obedience, as a manifestation of love, has the capability of totally altering our lives. Born of love it fosters humility. “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.”[5]

It is, at least for me, this far removed from the origins of monasticism, this far removed from the origins of Christianity as well, important to follow the stream back to its source. Otherwise it’s difficult to see the clearest and purest waters of its origin. I will, as long as I fail to see and drink from the original source, wrestle and argue with something as integral as the type of obedience we find in Christ’s model instilled in those whom he originally called and commissioned as well as in the monastic model where one listens and obeys without delay or hesitation.

This sort of obedience is practically unheard of in modern culture and the world of faith is not exempt. It is imperative that we overcome the temptation to gross individualism despite our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. “The extreme difficulties that lie in the way of those who seek interior freedom and purity of love soon teach them that they cannot advance by themselves, and the Spirit of God gives them a desire for the simplest means of overcoming their own selfishness and blindness of judgment. And this is obedience to the judgment and guidance of another.”[6]

Merton gives us even more insight into obedience when he says, “The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative that is guided by nobody. He trusts his own visions. He obeys the attractions of an interior voice but will not listen to other men.”[7] I don’t think Merton is telling us that listening to an interior voice or paying attention to visions is entirely wrong. God does use these genres to lead us along the avenue of life. We do, however, need to be careful and exercise caution where these are concerned or we might find ourselves stepping into potholes that impede us on our journey to Christ-likeness.

Herein rests the importance of the judgment and guidance of another. The Rule becomes a valuable guide. Listening to others who have been on the pathway longer than we have makes good sense. Living in harmony with others who are endeavoring to follow Benedict becomes a lifestyle. Obedience, performed in love rather than in subservience, becomes a holy quality in our lives.

[1] RB 5
[2] RB 5:10
[3] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p.7
[4] 1 Corinthians 13
[5] RB 5:1-2
[6] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 193
[7] ibid, p. 194

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Unconverted Regions

The fourth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict concerns what Benedict refers to as tools of the spiritual craft. “If we employ them unceasingly day and night, and return them on the Day of Judgment, our compensation from the Lord will be that wage He has promised: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love him.’”[1]

The preceding verses of this chapter contain no small list of tools or tasks that Benedict sees as borrowed items in our care that must one eventual day be returned to their owner. There are seventy two tools that he names, tools that are to be utilized in the life of every follower of St. Benedict. Although Benedict wrote the Rule with cloistered monks in mind, the tools that he lists for monks to employ inside the monastery are equally as valuable and applicable for Oblates of St. Benedict living in the world. They apply to every follower of Christ whether members of an Order or not.

I am reminded, when I read this chapter in the Rule, of how easy it is to fall into the trap of haphazardly or carelessly living the Christian life. It’s easy to take Christianity for granted when we are surrounded by such a sublime and false sense of peace afforded us by life in our ease filled Western culture. It’s easy to lose our focus, our pin point accuracy, in living as those in the world but not of it especially when so much of our life revolves around doing what we must in order to make mortgage payments and live with some degree or modicum of comfort where quantity in life is too often equated with quality of life.

Benedict reminds us that Christianity isn’t something to be lived by chance. It isn’t what we do when we aren’t doing everything else that’s considered normal life. It is a course that we must travel, a journey that requires careful navigation. It is who we are at the center of our being. It is who the center of our too often neglected being is created to be.

In her commentary Esther de Waal reminds us that “This is not a list of virtues to be nourished and vices to be eradicated, a simple ethical code to be followed, but rather a challenge to the process of discernment as the prerequisite of the life that he is encouraging me to follow. Once again his concern is not with externals, but with interiority.”[2]

None of us will ever be converted simply by following a set of prescribed dogmas or precepts. Not that dogmas and precepts aren’t important. They are substantive and essential. Conversion however is a matter of the heart. It is much deeper than adhering to sets of prescribed principles. It involves an interior disposition that lends itself to discernment, accepts the truths that arise through discernment, and implements these as a manner of life. “If I am to grow into a whole and free person then there must be a harmonious relationship between the inner and the outer. Without it there comes that crippling disunity within myself that will lead to ill-health, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual.”[3]

The list presented by Benedict is a good list. It gives us something to look at, something to use as a measuring stick. It helps us to see what we are doing right. It helps us see what we are neglecting. Where our hearts are truly converted we have no problem with items on the list. It is the unconverted parts of our heart, the unconverted regions of our interiority, that buck and have problems with items on this list. It’s these unconverted regions that cause us to argue with points of direction being given us.

[1] RB 4:75-77
[2] A Life Giving Way, p. 36
[3] ibid, p. 37

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


“Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand. You will travel in darkness in which you will no longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men.”[1]

I still like to think that what I think is important, that my views and opinions have some notable value that others should pay attention to. The idea that “my opinions”, in a world filled with opinions, are important can be a problem. It can cause me problems and it can certainly cause problems for others. After all, who is right? Whose best assessment of all the facts and variables is the one that all should accept and live according to? Or do I simply write my own rule as I go, after the manner of the sarabaites and gyrovagues that were given dishonorable mention in Chapter 1, and then get upset when nobody endorses my rule or follows it?

To have an opinion is one thing. It may be a good opinion. At the same time it may be a misinformed or malformed one. To assert that opinion on others is quite another thing especially in a world filled with so many diverse underlying currents where opinions are constantly changing based on the activity of the currents.

Benedict, keen on what we need as individuals and as communities, comes to the rescue in Chapter 3 of the Rule. He understood the need for individuals to opine on situations of importance. He also understood the necessity of one person, after hearing all the offered opinions, deciding the best and wisest course for all concerned.[2] The responsibility placed on the shoulders of the Abbot is tremendous.[3]

In all humility personally accepting and submitting to this position of responsibility is indicative of genuine Gospel poverty – the choice to give up the right to ownership of anything including personal opinions.[4] Humility opens us to the possibility that, despite our rank, position or intellectual capacity, we may not have the best opinion and that the best opinion may come unexpectedly from the least among us.[5]

Embracing the humility of Gospel poverty is really the best and most direct way to counter the effects of human pride and greed in our lives. Gospel poverty leads us along paths of sanctity that we never fully understand. We are able to see more of where we came from than where we are going. It’s not always comfortable on this path but we discover the contentedness inherent in it, contentedness that far outweighs any discomfort associated with the journey.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 59
[2] RB 3:1-2
[3] RB 2:33-34
[4] RB 3:4
[5] RB 3:3