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