Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Rasp

There is a sense of romanticism about monastic spirituality that draws us to it. It is, in a way, something like the first glances, thoughts, and feelings that lead to a first kiss, those first steps that develop into a lifelong love relationship. This love affair with monastic spirituality, like any true love affair, is an act of the will that involves not only the giving of ourselves but also the giving up of ourselves.

Being overly convinced of one’s own importance, being haughty and filled with self-pride, is to stand aloof from one’s true identity, from the true self. To uncover, discover, understand and develop the true self is not to diminish our human value or potential but to liberate it. In this liberation we dare to remove all the masks and costumes that we hide behind and dress ourselves in.

Without liberation from the false self we remain lost wanderers traveling the desert sands within ourselves. “To be ‘lost’ is to be left to the arbitrariness and pretenses of the contingent ego, the smoke-self that must inevitably vanish. To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”[1] Aloof from our true selves we are unable to know and enjoy the fullness of life that makes itself known to us through contemplative union with God.

I will never be the best model of myself until this contingent ego has been slain. This is not a simple matter. The contingent ego will always possess the ability to resurrect itself. Constant vigil must be kept against it lest it arise afresh from its grave with a vengeance and overtake us in its strength.[2] It is difficult though to engage this enemy in conflict when we fail to recognize it as a mortal enemy! The inability to recognize this enemy, at least in my opinion, is one of the tragedies of life in our modern society where self importance is so often viewed as though it were a virtue.

Benedict, and his Rule, rides into the scene of my life to rescue me from the self that I spent decades making of myself, from the self that my own contingent ego would otherwise continue making of me. The seventh step of humility[3] is, at first, difficult to accept. It cuts directly against the grain of my contingent ego. His words are at first like the teeth of a rasp designed to dig deep into the excesses that hide the rough image hidden beneath it.

I want to back away from these sharp, biting teeth. I do have that choice. Benedict, however, tells us early on to not be daunted by what we encounter in this journey.[4] When I realize that Benedict is seeking only the best that is within me, a best that still lies beneath a crusty mantle formed by life’s varied imposing forces and my own misconceptions, I also realize the necessity to resist backing away, to resist grimacing and gritting my teeth. Rather, I find myself willingly leaning into the forming, fashioning work of the rasp.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.38
[2] Colossians 3:9, 1 Corinthians 15:31
[3] RB 7:51-54
[4] Prologue 46-49

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Good Confession

At first glance it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that the Rule is orchestrated around exterior formalities. It is a rule and, as such, contains a certain unmistakable regimentation. This shouldn’t put anyone off. After all, we all live by some form of regimentation or routine, either effective or ineffective, in our daily lives. It’s important though to realize that anything seen in the Rule as exterior regimentation has an interior purpose, one that concerns the heart and all that occurs in this interior realm.

Humility, unlike a garment hanging in our closet, isn’t something that we put on in the morning before we leave the house. It indeed clothes us like a garment that is seen by those we encounter but it doesn’t originate in exterior dimensions. It originates in the deep interior regions of the heart where we also discover our true self, our true identity. In these depths self-revelation occurs. In these depths we encounter ourselves, our motives, dispositions, and intentions. When we begin diving into these depths of our being we are no longer able to hide. There is no place left to hide. There is no longer a desire to hide.

“Self-revelation is necessary to growth. There is nothing more debilitating than going over and over again in my own mind my secret sins and failings. But unto whom shall I unload it all? When Benedict suggests the abbot, I interpret that in my own circumstances. This means someone who is wise, standing in a position of authority, and, most important of all, taking the place of Christ. Then I can confess my weakness, both in thought and in action, receive forgiveness, and, with that help, trust in the mercy of God to transform my weakness into strength.”[1]

The value of a good confessor and a good confession can’t be overstated. Benedict realized this and addresses it as one of the steps in the ladder of humility. “The fifth step of humility is that a man does not conceal from his abbot any sinful thoughts entering his heart, or any wrongs committed in secret, but rather confesses them humbly.”[2] This principle is then supported by references to Scripture.

Much is made these days of the value of catharsis. Catharsis, though it is a healthy exercise, is incomplete when it is not accompanied by absolution, forgiveness, and penance. This is one of the points where ecumenism in Benedictine spirituality breaks down.

It is important for us to realize that there is a relationship between our interior life and our exterior life. Benedict realized this relationship, how our actual deed-life is affected by our thought-life, and he encourages his disciples to work toward heart purity – to deal with their thought life while the freshly sown seeds of temptation are yet in the sprouting stage before they have an opportunity to yield any sort of soul injuring and community hindering fruit.

[1] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 64
[2] RB 7:44

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Rubrics And The Rule

Rubrics are important. It’s easy, though, to get side tracked and find ourselves performing rubrics as though performance is itself our goal and desired end. I think, in entering into a life governed by the Rule, or any other rule or discipline, that one needs to ask themselves what it is they are looking for, what it is that they desire. Not only so, one also needs to be especially concerned about what it is they are being called to, being led to. Is a course of life being charted both interiorly and through life’s circumstances?

Without this discernment process the effects of our performance will be minimal at best. Without it our best performance of rubrics of any kind will eventually leave us feeling spent and empty.

I realize the danger inherent in making statements like this and have experienced first hand the fruit of attempting to communicate to uninformed others the relevancy of life in the Rule. Merton tells us, “One of the worst things about an ill-timed effort to share the knowledge of contemplation with other people is that you assume that everybody else will want to see things from your own point of view when, as a matter of fact, they will not. They will raise objections to everything that you say, and you will find yourself in a theological controversy – or worse, a pseudo-scientific one – and nothing is more useless for a contemplative than controversy.”[1]

Merton goes on to say, “There is no point whatever in trying to make people with a different vocation get excited about the kind of interior life that means so much to you. And if they are called to contemplation, a long, involved argument full of technicalities and abstract principles is not the thing that will help them get there.”[2]

Contemplative union with God is a grace. It is a gift that we once discover and then rediscover again and again. This grace, this gift, is what we long for in the depths of our being. It is, above and beyond all else, ultimately the sign and seal of the Spirit of God who invites us and then leads us into the Presence of God. We move beyond rubrics, beyond theory and academics into the experiential reality of God’s being. Contemplation is, in fact, the heart of Benedictine spirituality. “Contemplation is the primary, essential and immediate end to which all our observances are subordinated. A glance at our Rules will show that our life is organized above all for prayer.”[3]

Dom Lehodey, quoting from an anonymous Cistercian writer of St. Bernard’s time, says, “Above everything else, you should endeavor to keep your soul constantly lifted up in contemplation and your spirit always raised to God and the things of God. Other practices may make more of an outward impression, like vigils, the mortification of the body, fasting, and other such exercises. But you should regard all that, necessary as it may be, as a matter of relatively minor importance, and only valuable in so far as it helps you to purify your heart. The reason so few people ever reach true perfection is that they spend their time and their energies on things that have relatively little value, and pay less attention to the things that really matter.”[4]

St. Benedict encourages me toward the humility that comes only through genuine obedience, even under difficult, unfavorable, and unjust conditions. He encourages me to be confident in my expectations of God.[5] He encourages me to listen to him as a master spiritual director and to those who have traveled this way before me, to those who have lived the rubrics of the Rule and discovered in them the stepping stones that build a contemplative pathway.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.271
[2] ibid
[3] Dom Lehodey, Le Directoire Spirituel des Cisterciens Reformes, Briequebec, 1910, ch. 6, p. 34-37
[4] ibid
[5] RB 7: 35-43

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Most Painful Death

Obedience is a reoccurring subject in the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a subject that causes a lot of people to cringe because it sets itself against our tendencies toward rugged, independent individualism. It’s an arrow shot straight at the heart of inordinate self will and self promotion – two agendas that quickly erode and destroy community. Unchecked zeal can be extremely dangerous, especially when it’s compelled by ambition that’s centered in selfish desires and motives.

Benedict may have initially written the Rule to cloistered monks but the strength and value of his words transcend monastic walls to reach us where we are. His first interests, as a good abbot and spiritual father, were the welfare of the souls in his care and in preserving the community life where the brothers remained until they died. Did he have a vision of future generations of monks and nuns that would be known as Benedictine’s?

I prefer to think that he did. He did, after all, have a lot of spiritual insight. I don’t know if he envisioned the tremendous impact that Benedictine’s would have on the Church and on the European continent over the centuries or that today there would be 25,000 Oblates of St. Benedict living, praying and working in the 21st Century world. The impact though is a matter of undeniable, recorded history - perhaps a text that should have the dust blown off its covers and revisited with fervent interest by our modern age.

The Rule is potent and full of potential for personal, spiritual development. Benedict continually points us toward our inevitable destiny – that one day we are going to die a physical death. Until that inevitable day, what we are living, how we are living, why we are living the way we are will all be used on that day as our own self-willed indelible testimony that will be used to determine where and how we will spent all of eternity.

“The third step of humility,” says St. Benedict, “is that a man submits to his superiors in all obedience for the love of God, imitating the Lord of whom the Apostle says: He became obedient even to death (Phil. 2:8).”[1]

Benedict wasn’t establishing some sort of religious dictatorship. Nor was he interested in developing some communal form of democratic society. He understood the God given place and point of spiritual authority and in the monastery this authority also acquired and exercised the responsibility of physical governance. The survival and success of the monastery depended upon the obedience of the individual members of the community. Individual members had to accept not only the responsibility of the abbot, they had to also accept their own callings as individual monks to live lives of continual conversion – lives ordered to the death of their own self will whenever that will was contrary to the will and life found in Christ.

It’s not at all difficult to understand the spiritual direction that Benedict gives to his disciple-monks. The direction is honestly pretty straight forward. In fact, Benedict refers to his spiritual direction as a “little rule written for beginners.”[2] What makes the Rule difficult to accept and live out is that most of us come to the Rule pre-conditioned by the secular and religious environments where we’ve lived all our lives. Gone are the days when infants were given by their parents to the monastery to rear and educate.

For us to accept the Rule at face value, for us to accept the wisdom and tutelage of St. Benedict, we often have to admit that a lot of our pre-conditioning needs undoing. We have to see ourselves as beginners despite what else we may think of ourselves, despite our past accomplishments, despite any rank, titles, or status we may have enjoyed. This is often a most painful death to us, one that is difficult to accept. It is, nonetheless, one of the rungs of this ladder of humility.

Incline my heart according to your will, O God.
Speed my steps along your path.

[1] RB 7:34
[2] RB 73:8

Friday, May 16, 2008

Magna Opera Domini

It’s raining this morning. The earth is happily soaking in its refreshment. It is supposed to be with us most of the day, unlike yesterday when a front blew through in an hour and was gone. That was a rough one. North and East of here some homes were destroyed. Poor people who were already hanging on by a thread. After seeing it on the evening news I felt ashamed. I had lamented because our few rows of corn had been knocked flat by gale force winds.

Shirli is on the road to south Florida to spend a long weekend with some of the family. And here I sit on the front porch with a myriad of thoughts traveling through my head. The weather has put plenty of outside work on hold, work that won’t get done unless I get it done, but for now I’m quite content to sit here for a while even if the air is a little tainted by that handful of rotting potatoes in a bucket a few feet away.

Her trip, in part, is to visit. It does however contain another element. When she pulled out just before seven she took with her a sewing machine and a lot of material to make curtains with. She’s also carrying with her the intention to shop the thrift stores for several important furniture items that are desperately needed there. She is, in a sense, on a mission of mercy, a deliverer on an errand to provide some forms of assistance for these young people in dire need of help.

It causes me to think about a few other deliverers while I watch and listen to the sub-tropical rain – Noah, Moses, Mary, and Jesus – all key players in the salvation of the world. The first two players built arks. Mary bore the Ark in her holy womb. Jesus is the Ark, fulfilling all the types and symbols that we see through Noah and Moses.

It’s dawned on me that Mockingbirds sing in the rain. I’ve never paid any particular attention to this in the past but it struck me a few minutes ago during a torrential downpour. Their song never let up. Even with the close lightening and thunder. They also rehearse their repertoire at night, with increasing volume, outside our window while we are trying to sleep.

That’s something that we have noticed on a number of occasions – something that we aren’t particularly thrilled about at two or three in the morning. I must admit that on more than one occasion I’ve considered a terminal approach to the problem of the singing bird. Maybe I should think of it as their participation in Matins, standing in vicariously for me, where I am so undisciplined and should be rising and taking my place as a member of the chorus of prayer.

Sing praise to our Creator,
O sons of Adam’s race,
God’s children by adoption,
Baptized into his grace.[1]

I do not think for a moment that by mere chance these inclement conditions and the readings in today’s office collide and coincide so well. It is more a mysterious gift. If, in all actuality, it has come about by chance, I still accept it as a gift, one that bears significance and personal meaning, if only to me – a reflection of the “wonderful and truly divine harmony” addressed by St. Athanasius.[2]

Magna opera Domini.[3]

[1] Omer Westendorf, Liturgy of the Hours, p. 937
[2] Liturgy of the Hours, p. 71
[3] Great are the works of the Lord.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Beyond The Shadows

There is a sense in which life in the modern world forces us to prostitute ourselves. It’s not the way of life that we necessarily want or have been created for. Yet, we yield ourselves through some necessity to the dominating economic and political forces that surround us like the armies of the Roman Empire. In this atmosphere we seek out ways and means that allow us to utilize our intrinsic gifts and talents to secure both place and position in a world that gorges itself and consumes those that feed it. Some work to get by. Some work to get ahead. In the end, though, we all lie dead in the ground and the last thing to be remembered about us is the cost of our funeral.

This isn’t intended to be a scathing accusation or to be taken as some sort of fatalism. “Even the worst society has something about it that is not only good, but essential for human life. Man cannot live without society, obviously. Those who claim they would like to do so, or that they might be able to do so, are often those who depend most abjectly upon it. Their pretense of solitude is only an admission of their dependence. It is an individualistic illusion.”[1] It is the illusion and pretense that I desire most to escape, not life in the world where I find myself.

To live in the world without being part of it[2], if we take the words of Christ in all earnest seriousness, is not an easy proposition to live up to. Those early eremitical’s, the Desert Father’s and Mother’s, felt the need to remove themselves as far as they could from the mainstream of life in the world. Rome had converted. Christianity was now popular. All the ease was unsettling for many who headed for the caves to live out their faith. Many of them did, however, continue in some degree to trade in the world. They sold or bartered their baskets and other works of their hands. Commerce, itself, is not intrinsically evil.

St. Benedict, before settling into a societal form of monasticism, headed for a cave. He withdrew from society for a length of time where he lived in deep solitude and prayer, an experience that set the stage for the rest of his life as the one remembered as the founder of Western Monasticism. He tells us that “The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires, rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38). Similarly we read, ‘Consent merits punishment; constraint wins a crown[3]’.”[4]

Although we live in the world as Oblates of St. Benedict, we are not trying to escape from the realities of life. We seek to embrace them in a way that transforms even the difficult realities into opportunities for deepening prayer and contemplation where the Great Reality transcends, fills, and redeems all of reality. To make the most of this involves a great amount of personal renouncement, something that is more difficult at first but always presents itself as a challenge as we make this passage.

Those men and women who enter life within monastic enclosures don’t do so to escape reality. They do so to discover and embrace reality most intimately. Their vows are not only vows of renouncement but are equally vows of acceptance. As Oblates, though we make promises rather than vows, like our internal monastic brothers and sisters, we “have felt the terrible insufficiency of life in a civilization that is entirely dedicated to the pursuit of shadows”[5] and we seek life beyond the shadows.


[1] Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, p.178
[2] Christ’s Priestly Prayer, John 17
[3] “we read” The quotation is not from Scripture but from the Acta Anastasiae 17, in reference to the martyr Irene (A.D. 304) who chose death rather than to be forced into prostitution [RB 1980, p. 196]
[4] RB 7:31-33
[5] Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe, xviii

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Success

Our lives, all of our lives, communicate something. This is the organic nature of life. We live it and what we live says something. Life is a dialog with ourselves, God, and others. The problem with life is that it comes replete with temptation, not the least of which is to do everything we can to manipulate life so that it serves as a means to satisfy our own faulty inorganic premises and preconceived notions about it.

As long as temptation is an inherent part of human nature, and there is only one eventual way to escape it, personal human failure will accompany us as we make our way toward our liberation from the false identities that we create for ourselves. Others, and particularly the economies of the world that drive personal ambitions, create avenues that make the pursuit of false identities appear appropriate and normal. Along these avenues we are tempted to measure ourselves according to synthetic, inorganic models and standards of success, models and standards that set themselves in direct opposition to humility.

Personal success, in the mind of St. Benedict, has nothing to do with pushing and promoting ourselves. He reminds us to “constantly remember everything that God has commanded.”[1] Benedict reminds us that our lives are being carefully monitored.[2] He reminds us that we must carefully guard ourselves during every moment of life lest we fall prey to the sins and vices that affect every area of our being.[3]

Benedict’s approach to personal holiness isn’t one that brow beats us by establishing a harsh penal code that corrals us with borders of bondage. He, to the contrary, takes us immediately and personally to the very liberating, basic, and organic nature of life, of being human, of living in a way that honors God by respecting the life he has given us. As a master spiritual director he helps us develop an awareness of life as it is intentionally meant to be, an awareness that helps us recognize our inherent tendencies, both the good and the otherwise, to not get our heads swelled when the good prevails, to acknowledge and deal with the otherwise when they immerge and manifest themselves in negative ways.

We realize the necessity to station vigilance at the gateways of our lives.[4] Without it we become negligent and slothful. With it we stave off our tendencies to rationalize the presence of this twin evil of the temporal and eternal welfare of our souls, tendencies that would otherwise cause us to slight the most important aspects of the life of faith – ora et labora, prayer and work, born of the pure soil of charity.

[1] RB 7:11
[2] RB 7:13
[3] RB 7:12
[4] RB 7:29