Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Summer Doldrums


They seem to hit me about the time the okra is putting on. The daytime temperatures range in the too hot for comfort range. The humidity is somewhere in the outrageous zone. My work load insists that I push myself out the door in the morning and I’m sweating before I complete the short walk to my truck. Before I finish the first lawn I look like someone turned a hose on me and gave me a good soaking. Needless to say, the okra usually rates a low priority and gets picked infrequently resulting in a lot of pods that are too mature and woody to be good for anything except soil building material. It’s a pity too because we really like okra.

It’s hard to sense any sort of spiritual inspiration when the general order of the days and weeks of summer in this sub-tropical zone calls for generous amounts of perspiration without a lot of exertion. I’ve noticed this pattern over the past several years and have come to recognize it, and its lesser counterpart that comes around in the middle of winter, as part of the annual cycle of my own personal normalcy. I’ve come to see that the summer doldrums are clearly marked on the chart of my life. There’s no way to navigate around them. I simply have to head into them, watch as my sails go limp and hang lifeless, drift through them in day to day slow motion, and wait for the fresh breeze that will always eventually come.

Life in these doldrums isn’t a purely lethargic one. Life goes on. It just happens that it goes on in some ways at a slower emotional and spiritual pace and I appreciate the fact that even people like Thomas Merton had spells when nothing seemed to flow in the direction that he thought it should.

When I first started noticing the effects of the doldrums several years ago I thought I was depressed and couldn’t figure out why. Then I went through the old guilt-tripping thing - layering on a generous supply of the “you ought to be doing this or that,” something that I account to the decades that I spent in Evangelical Fundamentalism. Somewhere along the way I realized that in the doldrums it’s enough to do just what needs doing, and it’s a really good time to do some things that usually get neglected at other times – like going fishing or reading a book or two just for the mere pleasure of it.

These seasons in the doldrums have a way of showing me that I’m not an invincible Peter Poppins – Practically Perfect in Every Way. They force me to take time to slow down, think, dream, and count my blessings. They have a way of reminding me how fleeting and short life is and of the futility of so much that we spend ourselves on and doing just for the sake of proving to others that we have secured some reasonable standard of living in an economic environment that’s fast going to hell in a hand basket. [This same self-proving malady also, I think, has a way of imposing itself on our conception of our spiritual being and relationship with God.] The fruitful thing about the doldrums, for me anyway, is they always have a centering way about them that leads me to fresh levels of rejoicing and thanksgiving. Perhaps this is because they make me realize that it’s not me, or the things that I’m doing, that is the wind in my sails.

I like to consider the doldrums to be God-sent still air and waters that engulf and interrupt my day to day, week to week, month to month goings on that have a way of going on entirely too long before they are providentially interrupted. I have, in a sense, by my own organized routine, set myself up for these seasonal interruptions since I don’t seem to be able to find a way to manage scheduling regular times for holy leisure. Joan Chittister, in her chapter on Holy Leisure, reminds me that “Benedict calls us to mindfulness. No life is to be so busy that there is no time to take stock of it. No day is to be so full of business that the gospel dare not intrude. No schedule is to be so tight that there is no room for reflection on whether what is being done is worth doing at all. No work should be so all-consuming that nothing else can ever get in: not my husband, not my wife, not my hobbies, not my friends, not nature, not reading, not prayer. How can we ever put on the mind of Christ if we never take time to determine what the mind of Christ was then and is now, for me?”[1]

I knew the chances of catching anything was slim to none since the tide was set to be at its lowest point but I took my cast net and a fishing rod and drove to a little fishing pier that I know of at the upper end of Weeks Bay. A week earlier I caught ten nice mullet off this pier with my net and I figured that I could at least sit on a bench and look at the water. I threw my net quite a number of times and caught nothing fit to cook. I did catch a couple of trash fish that I tossed to the Pelican, I don't know its gender but I call it Gus, that hangs around the pier looking for hand outs. I left my net on the pier and walked to the truck to get a drink of water.

As I sat in the truck a large Great Horned Owl lit in a pine tree not far from me. I sat there watching it and thought it strange that it would be moving around at 4:00 in the afternoon. After a few minutes the owl flew off. I went back to the pier and tried my luck with my rod for a while until I hung a snag and lost my hook. The owl had flown only a hundred feet or so and was sitting in a dead pine. Every few minutes it would say something in owl that I had no way of understanding but I enjoyed listening to it talk.

I walked back to the truck to retie a hook and noticed a gaunt fellow about my age picking through the trash cans pulling out whatever aluminum he could find. He looked like the contents of something that comes in cans had just about gotten the best of him. I suppose a lot of people would have been put off or frightened by this fellow but he was minding his own business and not bothering anyone. Who knows what hard trials and circumstances bent him into this shape? But for the grace of God there go I? I used to think that way but I’ve come to the point that I reject that line of reasoning. To assume that is to assume that this poor fellow doesn’t merit anything more than he’s got to deal with.

I prayed for him while I retied. As I walked back to the pier I was joined by a young man and two small boys that came to throw their nets, something they apparently hadn’t done much of. The young man was very polite and referred to me several times as “sir.” I must be looking my age. I fished a while longer, pointed out the owl in the nearby tree, and then gave the three of them all the room on the pier to practice throwing their nets.

Life’s not so bad in the doldrums.

[1] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From The Daily, p.105

[Photo: Cast net fishing in Mobile Bay]



Friday, July 11, 2008

Private David Reporting For Duty


I often return to the military image that Benedict presents early on in the Prologue.[1] It’s an image that is more than challenging in our modern age where human will is granted such a large amount of free reign, something that I spent quite a number of years exercising in the name of religion. After all, the religious world in which I lived had no real, central figure of apostolic authority, without which order quickly disintegrates into nothing more than chaos and religious anarchy.

The first time I saw Abbot Cletus he was sitting in the business office talking to someone on the phone. I had never been in a monastery before and had driven 300 miles for a personal retreat where I hoped to also speak with the Oblate Director about offering myself as an Oblate of St. Benedict. I have no idea what their phone conversation was about but apparently the person on the other end had asked to speak with someone in charge. Abbot Cletus responded calmly but pointedly, “You might say that I’m the person who is in charge here.” I realized immediately that I was standing in the presence of one of God’s black robed generals – a humble man with a load of responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the physical business of the monastery but also, and more importantly, for the welfare of a community of souls.

There is something very liberating about being a private in Benedict’s army of brothers. I’m set free from the chains and bondage of presuming to be more than I am, a giant step in realizing who I really am, one that begins cracking and crumbling the hard multiple layers of thick concrete casings that keep the true self imprisoned and unidentified. Merton tells us, “We must be saved from immersion in the sea of lies and passions which is called ‘the world.’ And we must be saved above all from that abyss of confusion and absurdity which is our worldly self. The person must be rescued from the individual. The free son of God must be saved from the conformist slave of fantasy, passion and convention. The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”[2]

As these futile disguises are lifted one by one we are able to bid farewell to our presumptuous tendencies that prey upon dignity and identity – our own, that of others, and that of creation. In yielding our own will we discover that it is not lost but refined and tempered. The things in life that are truly most important begin to emerge, open and illuminate the closed and dark corridors of our minds and hearts, and perform their transforming work of continual conversion. One of the predicaments faced is that we may not always live the light by which we’ve been illuminated. Even so, the realized ideals remain fixed as a constant reminder of a truer path always calling us back.

Benedict’s way of life is progressive. He gives us a beginning point then takes us step by step into the deeper depths. The first step isn’t into a comfort zone of calm shallows where we are standing only knee deep on a firm sandy bottom. It is a plunge into waters that are over our head where it is imperative that we listen to the reliable voice of the one who is training us, to the one who is showing us how to safely arrive at a sure destination and we do this as we travel a course replete with bountiful discoveries.

Living as a Benedictine private has changed the way I approach prayer.[3] [4] Before, for all the decades apart from the Benedictine way, prayer was something that came and went more or less as a mere element of the Christian life revolving, like one of several protons or neutrons, around the nucleus of the well-intentioned life that I lived. It was important but never really center until something came along wielding the power to drive me to my knees. There were times when I tried to develop some kind of routine life of prayer based on different post-reformation models. I tried to imitate some of the popular modern prayer styles but the best any of these ever generated for me was a generous dose of frustration.

My best efforts at developing a consistent prayer life were always short lived until I discovered the Benedictine way where the life I live and work that I do revolve around prayer, particularly the morning and evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours that are rooted in the Psalms, the daily Scripture readings and Responsorial Psalms used in daily Mass, and the Rosary. I no longer have to feel inspired to pray and by giving myself to these forms of prayer I no longer find myself trying to bend God’s ear or move him to perform like I think he should, presumptuousness that Benedict directs me to avoid. It’s rather amazing how much deep inspiration we experience, how much we actually accomplish in the way of intercession[5], when we feel the least inspired and have to exercise more diligence.

[1] Prologue 3
[2] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.38
[3] RB 20:1-5
[4] RB 18:24-25 The Psalms are integral in Benedictine prayer and our own tendencies toward personal wordiness in prayer are to be guarded against lest we enter into presumptuousness toward God.
[5] 1 Timothy 2:1-2
[Photo: Moon over the pines at Little River State Forest.

Avoiding the Reefs and Bars


Life in the Twenty First Century is, to say the least, an interesting challenge. If the past century were viewed as a seminar and one were asked to give the keynote address for this seminar, it would be difficult to find a better title for that address than “Change, Change, More Change, And More Changes Are Coming.”

The changes that have come have been fast and furious creating terribly high tides and disastrous erosion. Mooring lines have been broken. Foundations have been undermined. Ships have been sunk. The Ivan’s and Katrina’s of the cyclone world have their many counterparts in the social moral climate of our modern times. What more will the coming changes bring upon us that we haven’t already experienced? Time, and not too much of it, will certainly tell. No this isn’t about fear mongering although we should be closely listening to the groaning sounds being emitted by our earthly home and of our fellow residents.

It’s not that we’ve been without modern day prophets. The problem is as old as humanity. People, as a whole, more often refuse to listen to the voice of the prophets. Although he never proclaimed himself to be one, Merton looked at the world’s social and moral climatology and offered up a prophetic voice that sounds as true today as it did during the days of his life. “Man in our day, menaced on all sides with ruin, is at the same time beset with illusory promises of happiness. Both threat and promise often come from the same political source. Both heaven and hell have become, so [they say], immediate possibilities here on earth. It is true that the emotional hell and the heaven which each one of us carries about within him tend to become more and more public and common property. And as time goes on it seems evident that what we have to share seems to be not so much one another’s heaven as one another’s hell. For the desire that we cherish, in the secrecy of our soul, as our ‘heaven’ sometimes turns, when offered as a solution to common problems, into everybody’s hell. This is one of the curious features of twentieth-century civilization, and of its discontents.”[1]

Life, by its very nature since the moral fall in the Garden of Eden, is not an easy adventure. The seeds of that one deceptive and forbidden action were deposited in the ground of the souls of humanity where they did, and continue to do, what seeds do to reproduce the action that produced them.[2] Our struggle, then, is not against the world and the humanity that fills it to bulging proportions. Our struggle is against our own selves and our own innate tendencies to propagate and cultivate the seeds of that one deceptive and forbidden original action that started the whole mess of moral decline.[3]

Our world is a troubled world that, except for our modern conveniences and levels of education, resembles the world of Benedict’s day in a lot of ways. Safety and security globally and in our own neighborhoods have waned. Economic hardships, created by greed, are more the norm than the exception for growing numbers. Life is fast becoming an urgent struggle for a lot of people as costs of living rise. Secular powers are failing, despite their best efforts, to provide solutions to the plight of humanity. It seems that the Hun’s, and more than a few of them, are without and within.

It was into a similar socio-political-economic scenario that Benedict appeared, worked, and prayerfully lived his life. Benedict, in the words of Esther de Waal, “built an ark to survive the rising storm, an ark not made with hands, into which by two and two human and eternal values might enter, to be kept until the water assuaged, an ark moreover which lasted not only one troubled century but for fifteen, and which has still the capacity to bring many safe to land.”[4]

More and more I’m learning to look to Benedict and his Rule for guidance in helping me deal with the troubled world that surrounds me. His way of life may be rooted in antiquity but it is far from antique and out of date. His way is not always easy nor does his way always meet with popular opinion and this includes even a great amount of popular religious opinion.

The way of St. Benedict, simply rooted in the Gospel of Christ and the traditions of the early Church, cuts against the grain of modern thought, philosophy, and foolish antics providing a reliable chart and trustworthy compass that helps me navigate through these rapidly changing modern day reefs and bars that would otherwise leave me hung up while contrary winds and waves[5] batter me to pieces. I’m discovering that his voice is like a horn that pierces the dense fog of our times, his words like beacons of light marking a safe channel carrying me closer to Christ.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 1
[2] Romans 5:12
[3] Ephesians 6:12
[4] Esther de Waal, Seeking God, The Way of St. Benedict, p. 15
[5] Ephesians 4:14
[Photo: The lighthouse on Dixie Bar, Ft. Morgan, Alabama]

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In Sync

One of the things that impresses me about St. Benedict is that he didn’t use his three years as a solitary hermit in a cave as a time to dream up or concoct some new personal revelation. I find this extremely encouraging in today’s church world that is experiencing such a growth in modern day emerging church cultures. It’s an example that reminds me that I shouldn’t spend my time trying to rationalize and make excuses for the way things are now and invest myself, rather, in better understanding and holding fast to the historical foundations of the Church that so many seem to have erringly laid aside in favor of lesser ideals that are built on shifting sand.

In founding the order that bears his name, as well as in writing a rule that would govern life within this new monastic community, Benedict relied heavily upon the wisdom and labors of his monastic predecessors and the Church Fathers.[1] If, at least in my understanding, anything is new about the Rule of St. Benedict it is that his rule is an eclectic synthesis and simplification of the monastic rules of earlier centuries.

As I become more familiar with the Rule and the man that gave it to us, I see Benedict more and more as a caring, gentle shepherd of souls, a devoted and conscientious father figure, a holy and wise spiritual director – not afraid to employ discipline toward the negligent and unruly when necessary, but always pointing men, then and now, in the direction of God. He reminds us that “the divine presence is everywhere” and that “beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office.”[2] Benedict “assumes that prayer derives from the two main monastic practices of formal prayer, that of the Opus Dei, or liturgy of hours, and lectio divina, the activity of reading, pondering, ruminating and reflecting on the Scriptures.”[3]

The four volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours, something I was totally unaware of before it was recommended by our Oblate Director, is a valuable resource. A smaller four week Psalter, appropriately entitled Shorter Christian Prayer, gives us the Morning, Evening and Night Prayers, the Proper of Seasons, and hymns and is compact enough to fit into a coat pocket or purse. The Weekday Missal provides us with the carefully selected daily Scripture readings, an Old Testament and a Gospel reading, along with a responsorial Psalm. These three resources have become the spine, the hinged back of the book of my own developing prayer and devotional life, holding all the pages together, keeping my prayer and devotional life in sync with the global Church. When life goes haywire as it does, I can always come back to the harmony of living and praying on the right page for any given day. I don’t have to trust in my own wisdom to discern what’s best for me in this regard. I don’t have to rely on feelings of inspiration that are fleeting and usually subjective to my own perceived wisdom, something that’s led me astray more times than I care to think about. I’ve learned to trust, instead, in the wisdom of the Church.

Developing a structured and formal format for prayer and Scripture reading may at first seem odd or foreign for people unfamiliar with a liturgical format. It did for me after all my decades in unstructured non-liturgical church environments but it didn’t take long to begin realizing how effective and liberating it is. Persevering in this format is well worth the effort. As we give ourselves prayerfully and devotionally in this format we begin realizing its priceless value, the way it cultivates and waters our interior depths, the spiritual consolations and consciousness that it forms and tutors. We begin realizing in a fuller and more complete way our spiritual connection with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our relationship with the communion of saints - both those imperfectly present with us and those perfected ones interceding for us in Christ’s presence. And we are drawn by the cords of love into contemplative union with God, a foretaste of our own eternal completion and consummation in him.

Benedict teaches me that I have to accept authority and not just any authority that calls itself so if I’m going to get the most out of the journey or, for that matter, if I am going to get anywhere worth going at all. Without accepting legitimate ecclesial authority[4] I’ll always be running around in the small circle of my own opinions. My mind will always be wrestling in some conflicted and protesting state of being. Without resolving this conflict it’s difficult to “stand to sing the psalms in a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”[5] And not just the Psalms. This applies to anything I attempt to offer to God as praise, intercession, and supplication. Merton tells us, “But the truth is that the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the Church’s teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by authority.”[6]

Esther de Waal’s concluding comment on this section of the Rule is worth quoting. “His concern is always with attitude, with the disposition of the heart, awareness of the presence of God, response to that presence, habitual attention. This simple chapter is one of the most important in the Rule.”[7] This, I think, is what Benedict wants us to see and, once we’ve seen even a glimpse, never lose sight. After all, what we’ve seen is God.

[1] Adalbert de Vogue is careful to show the comparisons and similarities in Reading St. Benedict
[2] RB 19:1-2
[3] Mary Forman OSB comments on prayer in The Benedictine Handbook, p. 110
[4] Understood as the Three Pillars of the Church – Scripture, Magisterium, and Sacred Tradition
[5] RB 19:7
[6] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 146
[7] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 95