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.