Sunday, August 24, 2008

Marching To A Different Cadence

It’s interesting, at least to me, how passing the half-century marker a few years ago caused me to begin looking at life differently, weighing priorities, examining motives, both my own and those of others around me, in my search for a more deeply meaningful life, one where eternal values collide and overtake temporal ones rather than trying to fit my own finite schemes into something much more cosmic than I am. The search has turned out to be quite the journey, a real quest.[1] It is a personal pilgrimage replete with plenty of conflict and friction, particularly in a world that insists that we live by its prescribed standards and travel according to its own laid out routes, a world where coloring outside the lines is quite effectively discouraged by one social means or another.

Cadence is an integral part of life, even when we color outside the lines. A simple cadence of life is something that Benedict’s way of life safeguards. The monk’s day is apportioned to insure ample time for prayer, work, reading and rest – a daily cadence that is quite contrary to the way life is lived by most in the world outside the monastic enclosure. Scheduling time, outside a monastery setting, for the most important things in life that can otherwise go neglected, is something of a challenge in our modern day culture. The tyranny of the urgent too often prevails while the steering currents of the world beat hard against us like an angry wind blowing against a small, struggling vessel on a raging sea.[2]

Life, something precious and short, all too often finds itself catapulted into an impatient harried pace marching on to the tune of the earthly economic powers calling their own style of cadence. Its cadence sets a pace that is measured by profit and possession. Its pace is one that knows no compassion. It is one that gives no consideration to the fact that we have no control over when our vehicles break down, bouts of illness or layoffs that drain our strength and resources, or the reality that the best thing we can possibly give to family and friends is the unconditional gift of ourselves.

We can’t help but to hear the cadence being amplified on societies bullhorns and we are, to a certain unavoidable degree, influenced by its loud noise. We are, after all, fellow citizens of the modern age. But we choose to listen and respond to the softer, gentler one that’s heard with the ears of the heart.[3] It is here, in the regions of the heart, that our affections are purified, our desires changed, our lives reoriented. These changes in our interior region foster a climate where contemplative peace lives and flourishes. They do, at the same time, become a source of unavoidable friction and conflict[4] in an earthly arena where most people don’t hear the softer cadence and don’t understand, or care to understand, why we choose to live the way we do.


[1] Philippians 2:5-8
[2] Ephesians 6:12
[3] RB Prologue 1
[4] 2 Thessalonians 3:2

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Weakness

Several years ago I came to the conclusion that I simply do not have the strength to fight anymore. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I’ve ceased contending for faith. There is no more important issue than living a faith filled life. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, I came to the realization that I simply don’t have the strength to fight the world on its own terms and that faith is measured more by a sense of interior weakness than it is by outward shows of strength. For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.[1]

Weakness, in an honest biblical context, is not an indication or sign of spiritual impotence. It is, to the contrary, an indication of spiritual life and vitality. It is indicative of a course of surrendering to not only the reality of a world filled with hatred toward Christ but also to Reality himself. It is recognizing the dangers involved in being led by ego, even the religious ego that is the most dangerous and deceptive form of ego. Weakness looks into the mirror of self and recognizes the false images of pride and vainglory that peer back at us, images that contradict the image of the true self being remade in the likeness of Christ.

We are encouraged to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.[2] Acknowledging God’s ability is to also acknowledge our own inability. Happiness, in a genuine state rather than in false and selfish ideals conjured up in our own minds, is determined by surrendering to a will for our lives that is higher than what we would otherwise choose at the bequest of our false selves. We would choose lives of ease that compliment and satisfy our cravings for material comfort and prosperity, lives that avoid traveling through barren, desolate, and dangerous valleys where life itself depends upon surrendering totally to God’s ability to care for us. We would choose to avoid wilderness experiences where our personal ability to manage and control life is of little value. Yet, it is here, in the place where we have no ability, that the ability of God is most manifest. It is in the desert that springs gush forth from the Rock of Life and manna materializes as Bread to sustain us.

It is difficult in this highly commercial and materialistic age to imagine living a life abandoned totally to God as the caretaker providing all our necessities and directing the courses of our lives. It is even more difficult to begin taking steps that reorient our lives to living in a way that disassembles the flimsy towers that we make of ourselves while allowing the Strong Tower to cast his shade over us. It is here though, in tearing down what we make of ourselves and allowing God to remake and direct the scenes of our lives, where we realize what it means to live in the strength of God. We recognize the limited condition of our own ability and choose instead to depend upon the unlimited ability of God. “To God who is able” can never become the preamble, content, and benediction of our lives until we are able to recognize and admit our own weakness and inability.

This recognition and admission is our initial acceptance of what it means to live a life of poverty. To become poor in spirit[3], the first of the Beatitudes, is not banishment to a realm of baneful impoverishment that imprisons us. It is, to the contrary, a judicial pardon that liberates us to live in a kingdom where a Benevolent Sovereign Potentate, one completely aware and sensitive to the total spectrum of our needs, leads us along pathways traversing a constantly changing terrain that reveals our weakness. In our weakness we learn to trust and depend upon his strength.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:10
[2] Ephesians 6:10
[3] Matthew 5:3

Photo: Candle lit window, Wind & Water Retreat, Manitoba.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Leaf Peepers

“Walking through the woods, you can never see far, either ahead or behind, so you move without much of a sense of getting anywhere or of moving at any certain speed. You burrow through the foliage in the air much as a mole burrows through the roots in the ground. The views that open out occasionally from the ridges afford a relief, a recovery of orientation that they could never give as mere ‘scenery,’ looked at from a turnout at the edge of a highway.”[1]

There is a certain sense of comfort in not knowing. It is a sense that creates an edge of anticipation, an important element that seems to be lost to so many people living in this modern economy, people that, more often than not, appear to be facing and dreading life’s drudgery of gathering straw, mixing mud, and making enough bricks to meet someone else’s expectations. This is one of the cruelties imposed by the false gods of modernity where most people spend their lives making banks, corporations, and employers richer than they already are.

This is not meant to be a scathing remark. These modern times are what they are with billions of people simply trying to get through the crowded territory. I just happen to be fed up with living artificially, superficially, looking at the leaves, rocks, and streams from the turnouts but never touching them, never listening to them, never learning from them.[2] There are plenty of proponents insisting that the best most of us can do is look and most of us are so ground down by the daily grind that it’s easy to believe them. We run frantically, like Frodo, straight into the spider’s thick, sticky web where we are eventually captured, injected with venom, and hopelessly bound as table fare.

Had I picked up a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict ten years ago it wouldn’t have meant much to me. I would not, at that time, been able to see the freedom being offered to me in its simplicity. I was too caught up, entangled, anesthetized, in the spider’s spun web of false realities, always trying to live up to someone else’s expectations. Oh the blessed chain of events, that earthquake and its subsequent series of tremors, that reduced my prison to rubble and set me free![3]

This is not, however, a freedom devoid of standards and expectations. This is not a life of anarchy toward legitimate spiritual authority. It is, to the contrary and in every way, a surrendered life, one governed by legitimate spiritual authority. This is an acceptance that goes far beyond mere performance and show, things that can be put on outwardly with little or no interior change.

Confucius was right when he said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” One step. Whether it is inspired by some interior yearning or curiosity or by situations and circumstances that rock our worlds and knock us into the woods, it’s all the same. We get into the woods one step at a time. We travel through the woods one step at a time. The slower we go, the more attentive we are to our surroundings, the more we are apt to see in an adventure that’s filled with more than visual perception.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness, p. 63
[2] Psalm 19:1-4
[3] Galatians 5:1

Photo: On a walk with a friend in the Manitoba bush.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Inching Along


“The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home. It is a journey we can make only by acceptance of mystery and mystification – by yielding to the condition that what we have expected is not there.”[1]

It’s hard to be still long enough to unwind. Not because I don’t have the patience or desire to be still but because life, even my own, seems to be so perpetually wound up that I am being continually propelled by forces outside myself. There’s always something that “needs” to be done. Others have a way of imposing their wants and expectations. Saying yes when the phone rings does have a way of generating income and I have to keep reminding myself that this is only a means and not an end. I consider myself fortunate to be doing what I’m doing though I recognize so much of the futility in it.

Perhaps this is one of reasons for the restlessness that I always feel, one of the reasons I can’t put too much stock in the ownership of possessions.[2] In a perfect world there is no Second Law of Thermodynamics but a couple of people blew our chances for personal physical perpetuity long before we ever got here and in their blunder unleashed a pandemic plague of pride and greed.

In the world’s economy we labor to buy and own a piece of the rock though we know that nothing here endures[3]. In God’s economy he owns everything, shares it freely with all of us, and encourages us to use his possessions wisely for the benefit of all.[4] There seems to be a major disconnect between these two models and, try as we may to justify our straw[5] stacking, there simply is no possible way to reconcile the two.[6]

Yet it is here, in the friction that’s generated by these two worlds colliding, that I live. It is a difficult place. It is, at the same time, a hopeful place. It is one that allows me to dream of and work toward something better as a way of life even if what I perceive as something better is viewed by most in both aforementioned worlds as something ridiculous, irresponsible, or even absurd.


[1] Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness, p. 43
[2] Matthew 6:19-21
[3] Hebrews 13:14
[4] Acts 2:44-45 was the model for living in the early Church. Poverty is still one of the 3 Evangelical Councils.
[5] 1 Corinthians 3:12-13
[6] Matthew 6:24

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Transformation


“The wealth of a place is not to be reckoned by its market value at some given moment. Its real wealth is not just its present value, but its potential value as it continues through time; and therefore its wealth is not finally reckonable at all, for we do not know how long the world, or our species, will last.”[1]

I mentioned in a meeting this past weekend that I am an Oblate of St. Benedict. Later, in a conversation with a Christian brother who lives in a neighboring town, he mentioned that he had read the Rule and thought Benedict’s way of life was a demanding one. I can’t argue against his conclusion. It is demanding. It’s demanding because it calls us to consider a lot about ourselves. It’s demanding because it calls us to levels of personal recognition and surrender that are otherwise easily avoided as we pick and choose our way through life.

One of the conclusions that I’ve arrived at over the past decade is that I need the challenges that confront me in monastic spirituality. They are constant. They don’t change. They are built solidly upon the bedrock of Christ and his teachings in the Scriptures. Benedict quotes the Scriptures no less than 131 times in his “little rule for beginners” and brings to modern minds a historic model and understanding of basic Christianity being lived out daily through prayer and work in community with others – principles that are applicable in every circumstance and situation of life. Transformation becomes a greater possibility in community. We have the opportunity to experience something life changing, personal change that God will use as a tool to encourage transformation in the lives of others.[2]

Transformation is a holy process. Most of the time, although there are occasions when we experience emotional acknowledgements of God’s divine activity in our lives, this process simply, slowly unfolds as we yield ourselves in faithful, humble obedience. The changes that we often perceive as immediate are really the ripple effects of long seasons of gentle, quiet tillage and tutelage, the divine process working to bring us to greater levels of spiritual maturity.

This is the conversatio morum, the continual conversion that Benedictine spirituality calls us to. This is really the point of it all. This is the direction we are headed toward when we first knock at the door of the monastery. This is the direction that all subsequent monastic spiritual direction should keep us moving toward once we’ve knocked. The direction is itself a destination though it is never fully realized, one that is altogether graspable but never totally attainable[3] as long as our own mortality is one of life’s variables.

To read the Rule and miss this important point sets us up for a lot of misguided rule-keeping drudgery, not that keeping the rules isn’t important. Wholesome community - healthy society – isn’t likely to long exist without guidelines. But rules don’t create community. Transformed lives create community. Although my own process of transformation is certainly of benefit to me both temporally and eternally, it’s not solely for me. To think of it in such small terms is to cheapen its value. My own transformation affects not only me but also the greater community where its value cannot be measured until it is recounted in eternity. What will my life then measure? That’s a scary question.
[Photo: Daylilies in bloom at Homestead Hermitage and Gardens]


[1] Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness, p.16
[2] Proverbs 27:17
[3] Philippians 3:12-16