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