Wednesday, June 25, 2008


One Head,
One Body,
One Purpose,
One Journey,
United in a spirit of community.

One Bread,
One Cup,
One Spirit,
One Praise,
United in the strength of One Presence.

One Heart,
One Soul,
One Desire,
One Prayer,
Unified in the bonds of charity.

“And all they that believed, were together, and had all things common.”[1]

When this oneness becomes a manifested reality, a personal revelation, rather than a sublimated archaic ideal dressed to fit our individual modern opinions and interpretations, it becomes rather difficult to not enter into some fashion of apologetics. For this no apology needs to be made. Its manifestation radiates a brilliance that dispels darkness and reveals fallacies that would otherwise lead one in directions where they ought not to go. This oneness becomes a vehicle that safely spiritually protects and carries us as we travel toward our eternal destination.

I’ve mentioned privileged opportunity. This reality, too, I view as privileged opportunity though it does come with an open invitation addressed to all.

Personally experiencing this oneness, something that is divinely designed as the pure transcendent nature of the Christian faith, transforms the way one views the world, the Church, and life as a whole. It has a refining effect that dissolves the rugged individualism that so characterizes modern society, something that has banefully made its way even into the realm of the Church. This holy nature of oneness, one that first finds it’s being in the nature of the Holy Trinity, becomes, then, one of the foundational standards of the faith.

A terrible series of disconnects occur when this standard is not firmly allowed its ordained place. At a personal level we are no longer at one with ourselves and fail to realize our singular true identity as members of a larger body where stewardship and accountability are vital elements. When we see the effects of this at the personal level it’s easy to begin to see how it affects life socially, how factions and schisms are able to occur and, once begun, continue to multiply themselves into a vast array of detached societies with their own individual ecclesial hierarchies or independent structures. This is not to be taken as a roasting accusation. It is simply a matter of unarguable church-historical fact.

Oneness offers me deliverance from all the sublimation, from all the factions and schisms, from the tendency to exalt my own pride and stubbornness and to do it in a sanctimonious, pseudo-holy way. It shows me a higher ideal that will ever present itself as an invitation to the processes of continual conversion and perseverance in the faith.

The oneness of monastic spirituality, particularly Benedictine monastic spirituality, gives me a spiritual/liturgical guide that is designed to keep me growing in the depths of the contemplative life, one that knits me, as one small fiber on the edge of the garment, into the fabric of the larger Benedictine community where the overall good of the community is preferred over any fashion of rugged individualism. The oneness of the Church[2] accomplishes this on a larger universal scale and in her wisdom she has given us the collective means to an articulated and unified global voice. As a Catholic Christian living in the world I share in this voice, this message, of the Church as I endeavor to embrace and live out the Gospel life in day to day circumstances hoping to be an example of Christ.

[1] Acts 2:44
[2] The Nicene Creed draws its authority from the fact that it stems from the first two ecumenical Councils of the Church in 325 and 381. In our profession of faith we declare the truth of these early councils when we acknowledge that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Privileged Opportunity

The old manual[1] includes a section of daily readings from the Rule of St. Benedict that is tailored for Oblates. In it it’s interesting how the Oblate Directors at that time approached Chapters 8-18 where the observance of the Rule for Oblates is concerned. They didn’t. They simply entitled these chapters ON THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE DIVINE OFFICE and moved on to Chapter 19. Although not a manual, a more modern publication[2] includes these chapters as part of the daily readings for “the friends of monasteries wanting to seek God with the sons and daughters of St. Benedict”.[3]

Adalbert de Vogue tells us, “After the spiritual chapters we have just read, those we now come to carry us into another world. Instead of describing individual virtues, they regulate community observance. This new character, while marking almost everything that will follow up to the end of the Rule, is particularly visible in the liturgical section which begins here. True, it will end with two spiritual surveys on psalmody and personal prayer (19-20), but until then we will come hardly across anything besides dry rubrics.”[4]

There are rubrics involved in these chapters. The liturgical rubrics are, however, important rubrics based on a historical understanding of the seven normal appointed hours of daily prayer[5], a regimen that is much more realistic for life in a well ordered cloistered environment than it is for Oblates living and working in the world with its multitude of variables that can change daily or even hourly. It’s not that we take these chapters with a grain of salt and never visit them again. The rubrics contained in them are an integral part of what it means to be Benedictine and one should have at least a historical understanding of what St. Benedict intended and outlined for his monks as the normal way a monk prayerfully went about his days in a Benedictine monastery.

I’ll not, at this point, spend a lot of time belaboring the points involved in these chapters of liturgical rubrics and offer rather these few comments before moving on in this exploration. It would be fair, though, to say that the foundation laid by Benedict has gone through reforms over the centuries, some more austere than others. C. H. Lawrence, Professor of Medieval History at the University of London, does a better job explaining the centuries of transitions in medieval monasticism in his book[6] than I could possibly attempt. Suffice it to say that more than a few quite pointed words were lofted back and forth over the monastic walls during these reforms. Beyond that, I defer to Mr. Lawrence as a notable authority on this subject.

The closing paragraph of these liturgical chapters offers some flexibility in regard to how the distribution of the Psalms are to be arranged. It also cautions against indolence and lack of devotion to the Psalter citing the example of our early predecessors who, “energetic as they were, did all this in a single day.”[7] Benedict points out the daily standard kept by those who came before him and insisted that the minimum standard in praying the entire Psalter should be no less than a weekly one.

Although we don’t have a universally accepted manual that prescribes rudiments for our daily lives as Oblates, we have been given guidelines by our Directors[8] that are endorsed by the American Cassinese Federation. These guidelines, although not precise rubrics, do point us in a direction that involves adopting certain rubrics in order to achieve a more complete and balanced spiritual being. While it is not insisted that Oblates adhere to performing all the Hours, Oblates are to strive each day to pray some part of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, as the circumstances of their lives permit.[9]

This section of the Guidelines also emphasizes the importance of esteeming the holy sacrifice of the Mass, taking an active part in the celebrations of the sacred mysteries of the altar, striving to appreciate the beauty and spiritual wealth contained in the Psalms which form the core of the Church’s prayer, and harmonizing our prayers and devotions in accord with the liturgical seasons and feasts of the year as Vatican II recommends. We are not left on our own to independently plough our own furrows and exercise our own wills after the manner of the third and fourth classifications of monks that Benedict so pointedly reproves.[10]

While some, especially those unfamiliar with monastic spirituality, may see all this as cumbersome and unnecessary religious motion, this, to me, all speaks of privileged opportunity. As an Oblate of St. Benedict I am privileged to share in the long, rich heritage that St. Benedict has given us. I am also privileged to share in the prayers of the Church that are celebrated in the sacred mysteries of the altar. I have, in these privileges and the many privileges associated with them, passed out of a lot of confusion and interior turmoil, offspring generated by so much of my own misguided and protesting self-will and self-direction.

Far from cumbersome and unnecessary, these motions in rubrics, paltry as mine are in comparison to my brothers living in monasteries, offers to God at least a small portion of the honor, respect, and praise due to one who is Almighty, creates an atmosphere that assists in identifying all that is false in life while accentuating all that is true, and continues to slowly hew out the contemplative pathway that I somehow managed to stumble upon during a time of intense spiritual and emotional duress in my life.
[Photo: Altar in the cemetary chapel, St. Bernard Abbey]

[1] Manual For Oblates, St. John’s Abbey Press, 1955
[2] The Benedictine Handbook, Liturgical Press, © 2003 includes a modern translation of the Rule of St. Benedict, sections of articles on the Tools of Benedictine Spirituality, The Benedictine Experience of God, Living The Rule, and the Benedictine Family.
[3] Ibid, p. viii
[4] Reading St. Benedict, p. 101
[5] Mattins, Prime, Tierce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline
[6] C. H. Lawrence, MEDIEVAL MONASTICISM, Forms of religions life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, ©1984
[7] RB 18:22-25
[8] Guidelines For Oblates of St. Benedict
[9] ibid, Section D
[10] RB 1:6-11

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Burnt Out Incense

There is a definite relational process involved here. It is multi-faceted and each facet touches an aspect of human character and nature, digging deeply into the fabric of our being, pulling at the roots of sins and vices and shortcomings that produce the regrets that engender spiritual and psychological barriers to real interior peace and joy.

It’s hard to see a way to this real interior peace and joy that does not include intention, discipline, measures of mortification, and acts of penance. It’s also easy to see how monastic life in earlier times listed in this direction and took upon itself an abject character that weighed so heavily to one side. However, the life modeled by St. Benedict and outlined in the Rule is not an entirely penitential one or one that focuses on facing daily humiliations as proof of our sincere obedience.

At the same time it’s easy to see how the pendulum swings. Life in the world today is characterized by a rejection of anything that infringes upon the rights of a person to follow their base impulses and it’s no wonder the world is in the shape that it’s in. This tide, with its strong current, is hard to stand against. Without a solid historical view of Christianity, one that takes into account the development and growth of monastic spirituality, one’s vessel is set adrift in dangerous waters, left to founder and bound to break apart in the pounding surf.

Benedict’s concluding comments regarding the ladder of humility[1] sum up what this life is all about - to be set on fire with an intense love for God above all things and to burn fervently all the days of our lives with that love which purifies our lives and perfects our souls. This is what Benedict’s monastic spirituality is about. This is, as a matter of fact, what Christ’s Gospel is about! Anything less is a subversion and diversion no matter how innocent or pleasing it may appear, no matter how we may attempt to rationalize it.

As for orienting one’s way of life to follow the teachings of a dead monk from the 6th century, what may begin as something that seems an arduous task finds itself transformed with grace as the Holy Spirit manifests his workmanship in and through those who consciously seek his graceful Presence.

“When you realize it was God the Holy Ghost who inspired the Royal Psalmist to beg that his “prayer be directed as incense in the sight of God” (Ps. 140:2) you can see that men who have lived lives of prayer, whose days and nights have been uninterrupted prayers, whose every thought, work and deed, breath and heartbeat was ever God-directed, could not but die deaths that were not burning out of Incense. Their souls went up like the wafted fragrance from adoring thuribles, and they left behind them what BURNT OUT INCENSE always leaves behind: an aroma of worship, the very scent of the presence of God.”[2]
[Photo: St. Bernard Abbey Cemetary, Cullman, Alabama]

[1] RB 7:67-70
[2] M. Raymond, O.C.S.O., Burnt Out Incense, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, © 1949, p. xii-xiii

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Integrated Humility

The seventh chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule is entirely devoted to humility, the virtue that stands as the direct opponent of pride. Properly understood, there is no honor without humility as its predecessor.[1] St. Peter tells us that we are to clothe ourselves with humility and be submissive to each other.[2] St. Paul tells us that we are to take on the mind of Christ and model his humility.[3]

Humility, opposed to pridefulness, is undeniably one of the interior characteristics of the Christian life, monastic or otherwise, that sets it apart from all other ways of living. It is something that must be sought and acquired through effort and once gained can fly out the window in an instant of carelessness.

Asceticism is not a popular word in our modern world but it is still a good word though it conjures up ideas and images of monks starving themselves through long fasts and flagellating themselves on account of their perceived failures in thought and deed. It is, however, an important word. It is a word that best describes our efforts in climbing St. Benedict’s ladder of humility.

Merton tells us that “Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are really something better than we are. If we really know ourselves we quietly take our proper place in the order designed by God. And so supernatural humility adds much to our human dignity by integrating us in the society of other men and placing us in our right relation to them and to God. Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.”[4]

Humility integrates us in a right relation to the society that surrounds us. It integrates us in a right relation with God. It integrates us, also, in a right relation with our true identity as a human person. Humility, then, manifests itself in all areas, all aspects, of life.[5] In step twelve we see that humility isn’t content to overlook or leave out any aspect of life. As a matter of the heart it permeates the whole being, the whole of life, and follows us wherever we go and into whatever we are doing. It does bear within itself a certain penitential nature that we can’t escape and shouldn’t attempt to slight or stifle. Doing so easily leads one into the degeneration of antinomianism. Penances, when entered into carefully and under wise spiritual direction so as to avoid extremes that do little more than turn us into freaks,[6] are tutors of the soul that lead us in our spiritual growth and development, disciplines that keep us centered in and focused on the higher ideals of the Christian life.

[1] Proverbs 18:12
[2] 1 Peter 5.5
[3] Philippians 2:5-11
[4] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 113
[5] RB 7:62-66
[6] RB 49:8-10

The Stewardship of Speech

To say that a major life re-orientation ensues embracing and attempting to follow St. Benedict’s guide for life as a Christian is, without a doubt, a great understatement. Monks living lives of prayer and work in monasteries is contrary to the world’s self-gratifying view of life. Endeavoring to faithfully live a life of prayer and work in the world as a lay member of a monastic community is no less contrary.

It seems rather obvious that we’ve embraced something that most minds and hearts in this modern world aren’t disposed to understand or accept. This lack of disposal, at least in my opinion, is largely due to a lack of education on the matter of monastic spirituality even though the effects of centuries of monastic life permeate the Church and the world. Education is one matter. Re-educating the educated is quite another. Change is difficult. Concrete, particularly the concrete that forms the sidewalks and highways of the mind, is extremely difficult to do anything with once it has set.

Change, as it concerns continual conversion in an atmosphere of stability and poverty, is something that resides at the heart of the Rule of St. Benedict. This sort of change continually hammers and grinds away our thick layers of concrete. Those fearful of change, those comfortable with their own formed and hardened concrete, will find little of interest in St. Benedict’s “little rule for beginners” since it demands attention, discipline, devotion, and letting go.[1]

We do have something important to say, something important to communicate, as Oblates of St. Benedict living in the world. Most of Earth’s modern residents, however, aren’t prepared to listen to what we have to say. The effects of materialism on modern society, despite the fact that it is devoid of any lasting meaning, accompanied by the grand exaltation of individualism, keep most from seeing the problem and hearing the solution.[2] Yet, it is in this environment in the world that we, as Oblates, live out our vocation communicating ideals that are ancient but ever fresh and alive with both temporal and lasting meaning.

The eleventh step of Benedict’s ladder of humility regards the stewardship of speech.[3] Speech, as well as silence, have important roles in our lives, rolls that are intertwined and inseparable. Even the most silent Orders use speech albeit very sparingly. “Here his concern with the good use of speech in ordinary life filters through for the first time. Talking about the ordinary things of life is not simply a necessity, to be reduced to the unavoidable minimum. Such exchanges between brothers must have a certain quality, and they must above all bear the stamp of reason.”[4]

Human beings tend, by nature, to be talkative creatures. Men are no exception to this tendency of human nature. Some of us even talk to ourselves when there’s no one else around and often what we say isn’t in the least way edifying. A lot of the discoursing that takes place between people in the world is degrading and offensive and honestly isn’t worth listening to, things that are in terrible opposition to genuine Christian ideals. But it’s not fair to leave off with ourselves and the world. In the Church we can hear things said that demean others and detracts from living fruitful, faithful lives.

Even Christians aren’t immune to pride, greed, and prejudice. It takes only a moment of listening to people to know where the true interests of their hearts are.[5]
[1] RB 73:6-9
[2] 1 John 2:15-17
[3] RB 7:60-61
[4] Adalbert de Vogue’, Reading St. Benedict, p. 94
[5] Matthew 12:34

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Joy Through Humility

There is quite a varied history that goes along with the Rule of St. Benedict and those attracted to it over the course of its history. Some have taken it more literally. Some have taken it a little more loosely. It’s important to understand the history associated with the Rule, to read the Rule in its overall context, and to understand the intentions engrained in it by St. Benedict.

He’s not interested in creating emotionless, somber stoics devoid of joy. He’s interested in developing spiritual balance in the lives of his followers. He does realize though how easily one can venture aside, how easy it is to let go of greater, higher ideals, how easy it is to opt for or succumb to lesser standards that hold the potential to do harm. It should come as no surprise, then, that Benedict holds us to a higher standard than most people are accustomed to.

There are two words that come to mind when I read Benedict’s counsel in the tenth step[1] - moderation and sobriety – and I’m taken back to something said earlier in the Rule. “Do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.”[2]

Dom Adalbert, Cistercian monk and scholar, reminds us that true joy consists in being mindful of God.[3] True joy is mindfully realized as fruit born in our lives through the Spirit working his will in us.[4] It’s more than interesting, in the Apostle’s listing of these nine sections of the one Fruit of the Spirit, to find joy sandwiched between love and peace. Although true joy becomes evident in our lives, often readily observed by others as we experience its presence, it is yet something that is difficult to describe in human language.[5]

Achieving the spiritual balance of humility in our lives, particularly in such an unbalanced world, is not an easy proposition. It requires constant attention. It requires constant dedication and single-mindedness. It makes us ask the important and difficult “why” questions of ourselves. We realize the necessity to listen[6] to sources outside ourselves and to directions that arise from the depths of silence being cultivated within us.

Esther de Waal, having studied and endeavored to live according to the Rule for quite a length of time, says, “I have an enormous amount to learn along the way in my journey of discipleship, and I need to learn it from others. If I talk too much, then I cannot hear. If I laugh too readily, make the clever and witty comment to turn something into a joke, then I can dismiss what I may not want to hear, or fail to take it seriously.”[7]

[1] RB 7:59
[2] RB 4:54
[3] Adalbert de Vogue’, Reading St. Benedict, p. 93
[4] Gal. 5:22-24
[5] 1 Peter 1:8
[6] Prologue 1
[7] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 66

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Silence and Contemplation

I have to admit that, at first notice, something like the Rule of St. Benedict is more than a little challenging to people. In our modern times it seems foreign, even alien, to us. It is certainly not rooted in modern fashionable trends or emergent philosophies that seek to satisfy our every whim and fancy, trends and fancies that seem to be forever changing with the times.

The Rule, unchanged over the past 15 centuries, yet still fresh as though Benedict’s ink had just begun to dry, is a practical interpretation and guide to living our lives in a way that makes the most of the ideals taught by the life of Christ and modeled by his followers in those early centuries. At first this seems like a hard way[1] to travel but, as one makes their way along this journey, they begin discovering that the greatest difficulties involved are not contained in the Rule itself. They are, instead, resident in the mind and heart of the pilgrim that begins this journey.

Monasteries are generally quiet places. Some are quieter than others. The ninth step in Benedict’s ladder of humility is a call to silence.[2] In this media congested and philosophically coughing world it’s hard for most people to apportion brief episodes of silence into their day. It’s even more difficult for most people to imagine living a silent life, one devoid of the interruptions created by the intrusions of radios, televisions, cell phones, internet, and the general spontaneous conversations that so fill and condition our day to day lives.

Silence calls to us and then leads us deeper into itself. Silence is not merely a discipline that is exteriorly imposed upon us for the sake of discipline. It is much more a fruit that grows in the interior regions of a soul that has begun to move beyond all the exterior commotion that strives to interfere with and interrupt the deep communion with God that first draws us and then leads us into contemplation – a world of reality beyond words, a silent world that is experientially filled with the peaceful, transcendent, ungraspable reality that is God himself.

“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. … It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed.”[3]

To really know God is to admit that we really don’t know him. We admit that, even in our best and most earnest efforts to know him, he remains transcendent, out of our sight. We can describe his nature with practical theological terms that our minds are able to grasp. People are comfortable using images in talking about God and this does honor him. He, however, also invites us into experience beyond images, beyond words, deep within ourselves where all our finite notions and concepts of the Infinite avail little. “During contemplative prayer all created things and their works must be buried beneath the cloud of forgetting.”[4]

Admittedly, silence is a rare commodity outside monastic enclosures. It’s hard to be quiet or to find a quiet place in our noisy world. Be this as it may be, Benedict knew that we need silence as much as we need the air we breathe and the food we eat. Silence is as much a part of Benedictine life as prayer and work and rest and plays an integral and important role in Benedict’s school of spiritual development.

[1] Prologue 48
[2] RB 7:56-58
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 1
[4] The Cloud of Unknowing, p. 53. Originally written in Middle English by an unknown mystic of the 14th Century, the author explains how all thoughts and concepts must be buried beneath a “cloud of forgetting,” while our love must rise toward God hidden in the “cloud of unknowing.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It's Not About Me

“And the monk understands, by the terms in which his vows are made, that his gift of himself to God will consist chiefly in a gift of himself to his abbot and his brothers. He will no longer live for himself but for the monastic family to which he has been admitted. He will prove his love for God and glorify him by the simplicity and love with which he obeys his abbot and his brothers, and dedicates his body and soul to the praises of God and to the round of labor and reading and meditation laid down in the Rule.”[1]

With the growing interest in Benedictine spirituality by lay-seculars living in the world, the nature of this practical spirituality was addressed by a group of Directors of Oblates and formulated in a document, Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, first published in 1973. These guidelines clarify and restate the Statutes and Declarations contained in an earlier manual[2] that drew upon the Statues and Rules of the Secular Oblates of St. Benedict officially approved by the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars in 1904 after the canonical status of Oblates was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1898.[3] This helps me to see the importance placed on Oblate life by the Church and our Directors in these recent modern times.

This practical Benedictine spirituality is not a step in the right direction. It is a giant leap that catapults one from their comfortable preferential ideals. It launches one into a complicated gut wrenching dialogue with one’s self, with God, and with others that often care little about carrying on this deeply intimate conversation – others that often lash out with those proverbial whips and blades when their own preferential comfort zones are challenged. Practical spirituality is not convenient. It is, however, expedient.

We are told that as Oblates we are to live by the spirit of the Rule as best as our state of life will allow. It’s often been said that as Oblates our cloister is the world. Both of these are accurate but broad, general statements. They are good statements. They can, however, also be used as scapegoats to justify a lack of commitment to an active role in the Church’s mission to the world.[4]

The eighth step of humility[5] directs us toward a deeper, more surrendered, obedience. When I read the Rule, as an Oblate of St. Benedict, I need to also be mindful of the wisdom of the Directors who have been given the responsibility to guide me as I endeavor to live out the spirit of the Rule in my day to day life in the world. “Just in case I am becoming complacent as a result of these earlier steps, Benedict floors me with a thoroughly down to earth demand in this step. He tells me to stay in line, keep a low profile, not draw attention to myself. This must mean in my situation, outside a community, that I should be willing to be guided by others, to remain in the mainstream, and not become a law to myself.”[6]

In refusing to become a law to myself, by obedient submission to the Rule of St. Benedict and careful spiritual directors, I begin to realize my role as part of the spiritual arm of the Benedictine community. “Oblates are a “spiritual arm” of the Benedictine community, reaching out into all areas of life, seeking to share with others what they themselves gain as Oblates of St. Benedict. Their affiliation with a community of monks or nuns is not therefore for their own personal good alone. It is chiefly by their Christian example, even by their presence among others, that they hope to bring St. Benedict’s ideal of service to God and man into the world where they live and work.”[7]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe, p. 18
[2] Manual For Oblates, St. John’s Abbey Press, 1955
[3] ibid
[4] Preamble, Guidelines For Oblates of St. Benedict, 1973
[5] RB 7:55
[6] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 66
[7] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Constitution, 1c