Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Habit of Prayer

Those uninitiated in prayer, and those who have never given themselves to growth in the depths of prayer, tend to see prayer as something of an encumbrance to life in the ordinary when prayer is really intended to be the ordinary in our lives.

Ora et labora. Prayer and work. A key Benedictine motto.

Although it certainly qualifies at times, and how would we make it if it were not, prayer is more than a recourse or last resort when life’s circumstances come down hard upon us. Even this opportunity to avail oneself to God’s graces through prayer, however, seems to be lost in a society that no longer understands the habit of prayer as the ordinary for life, a society that surrounds itself with so much futility, despair, and hopelessness, one that has forgotten, or never learned, the value of prayer as a lifestyle.

Prayer is the center stage on which all of life is played out through its various scenes on supporting stages. The personal and collective significance of this can’t be overstated.[1] “It is an old custom with the servants of God always to have some little prayers ready and to be darting them up to heaven frequently during the day, lifting their minds to God out of the filth of this world. He who adopts this plan will get great fruit with little pains.”[2] Liturgical form in prayer, when accepted and embraced as the foundation for all prayer, inevitably leads to healthy, brief spontaneous responses[3], including mental and nonverbal responses.

We are, I think, as God’s created, obliged to offer prayers to him. He is, after all, the Supreme Being and we are, though created in his image, honestly much lesser creatures. We owe our being to his Being, our life to his Life. The greatest fruit in prayer, though, begins to ripen when, while never losing a sense of obligation and routine, we find ourselves desiring to be clothed in prayer simply for the sake of prayer, simply for the sake of its communal nature, one that draws us into the experience of God himself as he is and of ourselves as we are.

[1] 2 Chronicles 7:12-14
[2] St. Phillip Neri
[3] RB Ch. 20

Friday, November 28, 2008

Liturgical Form

Society, in our fast paced post-modern culture, reminds me of a small boat that has lost its rudder, anchor, and sails. It has lost its ability to hold itself safely fast. It cannot steer itself toward safe harbor. It is victim to any and every wind, destined to be dashed to pieces on the rocks and reefs.

Historical foundations, guides that are more often viewed by this society as restrictive interferences, are abandoned in favor of less restrictive ideals. Liturgy, in the mind of post-modern society, is unimportant, contains no contemporary meaning. Devoid of historical liturgical form, life becomes fashioned by whim and fancy, personal emotion and notion.

No rudder. No anchor. No sails. Victims of the changing winds and storms of life.

Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter.
Advent. Lent. Easter. Pentecost. Ordinary.
Matins. Prime. Tierce. Nones. Vespers. Compline.
Glorious, Joyful, Luminous, and Sorrowful Mysteries.

Natural and liturgical rudders, anchors, and sails that offer, promise would be more exact, something deep and meaningful to any person or society that dares to allow them to serve as their personal governors.

I lived most of my life outside of any kind of prescribed liturgical form. My life was lived extemporaneously. As a Protestant pastor, I chose what texts I preached from. Extemporaneous prayer was the only kind of prayer I knew. Essentially, I wrote my own liturgy to fit my own perceived needs.

Looking back, I have to admit that what I preached and how I prayed were generally governed by the emotional and situational context formed by my own subjective human perceptions and those of the congregational moment. Subjective objectivity, though sincere, is more often very near sighted. Without corrective lenses we are always stepping into potholes, twisting our ankles, or worse.[1] It is a prescription for disaster.

Discovering and returning to historical forms, aligning my own liturgy of life with historical liturgical norms rather than trying to create my own syncretistic version that easily accommodates life in this post-modern society, is not without some significant challenges.

Seeing the pathway through all the fog and smog of post-modernity is one thing. Mustering the courage to set foot on the pathway and begin walking it is altogether another thing. Perseverance to stay on the pathway, once we’ve discovered it, once we’ve started on our way, is something else entirely. What else, though, can we do? What other real choice do we have once our vessel has been divinely fitted with what it needs for a successful voyage?

[1] Matthew 15:14

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Monastic Action

So much of life in this natural world, perhaps even the greatest part of it, is centered in doing. Doing is unavoidable. We will always be doing something. In fact, what we do, how we live and where we go, has a revealing characteristic that really tells on us. What we do defines our preferences in life, whether our mind is on eternal or earthly things.

The Apostle James tells us that faith, unless it is accompanied by action, is no faith at all.[1] God, through divine action, touches our senses in one way or another to enliven faith, an interior unction, within us. We say yes, like Mary[2], to the messenger that speaks to us. We believe the message; we receive the message, even though it doesn’t necessarily make sense to us at the moment.

Christ became a literal reality within the womb of Mary, not because she understood, but because she said yes to the incomparable reality that God is. The idea that Christ chooses to make his residence within us, to reveal himself to others through us because of our interior semblance to him, is, in my own mind, the keynote of Scripture and the message of the Church.

This interior presence is not something merely symbolic. It is as literally real as the human presence of Christ growing in Mary’s Virginal womb. It is revealed, proclaimed, and received in the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist – in the real and present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ cloaked in the transformed garments of bread and wine.

His life is given to us. Our life becomes yielded to his in ever deepening dimensions as our personal faith filled response to the divine action that touches our senses. Here, in the realm of deepening our interior dimensions, is where we discover the hard work of monastic action in simple awareness.

This is an unending work, one that is never completed until we are at last standing in the literal presence of the Glorified Christ, the work spoken of by the anonymous fourteenth century mystic whose writing forms the heart of centering prayer and should form the heart of all prayer.

“The simple awareness of my being is all I desire, even though it must bring with it the painful burden of self and make my heart break with weeping because I experience only self and not God. I prefer it with its pain to all the subtle or unusual thought and ideas man may speak of or find in books … For this suffering will set me on fire with the loving desire to experience God as he really is.”[3]

[1] James 2:14-26
[2] Luke 1:26-38
[3] The Book of Privy Counseling, Ch. 14, para. 3

Monday, November 24, 2008

Monastic Study

It is not my place to look for or find fault with or criticize the Order that so graciously received me into it as an Oblate. I must, though, endeavor to understand its movement and progress over the course of history, take into account its reforms, attempt to keep an objective focus, and distill all of this into its essential essence as a spiritual tonic in an age where thousands of voices are hawking their miracle oils on the street corners of life.

The words written by Paul to Timothy speak to me in the context of the aforementioned. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”[1] Studying is not an option. It is an imperative, especially considering that the Rule of St. Benedict is also the guiding rule for the Cistercians and the Carthusians – reforms aimed at returning to stricter interpretations and applications of the rule of the Founding Father of all Benedictines.

I must however admit, at this point in what I consider yet to be my own juvenal lay-monastic development, that I am much more drawn to the silent, contemplative life of the Cistercians and Carthusians than I am to the worthy educational task undertaken by Abbeys of the Order of St. Benedict. It was, after all, in reading Merton that I found myself being led out of the wilderness and toward monastic spirituality. This, though, is something inherent within the realm of my own discernment process, in understanding my own charismatic graces, and in no way implies anything scathing toward the charismatic graces of this blessed Order and Abbey where I made and intend to keep my Oblate Promise.

It takes all of us, living within any religious society, to complete and complement that society.[2] The various parts receive the necessary graces to fulfill their role in completing and complementing the whole of this society. Studying and understanding the Rule has a central role in the development of my social graces as an Oblate. So does studying and understanding the Scriptures. I can’t divorce myself from studying and understanding Sacred Tradition. I can’t negate the importance of the offerings of the Sages and Saints of the ages.

To avail myself to these, to gain from their wisdom, necessarily means that I view myself as a fledgling modern day disciple, as a student of masters whose knowledge and contemplative spirituality far exceed my own. This does nothing to detract from the validity of my own contemporary experience. To the contrary, it insures that my own contemporary experience has a solid and proven foundation to support it.[3]

[1] 2 Timothy 2:15
[2] 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
[3] Matthew 7:24-27

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Benedict's School

The importance of academic garnering, gathering all the information we can about a topic or field of expertise whether through private activity or collegial engagement, should be admirably viewed. Learning and literacy are crucial elements in personal development. It comes as no surprise to me that Benedictine monasteries, early on, became centers for learning and continue that tradition in our modern setting. Education can be a lucrative business, one much more glamorous than milking cows and making cheese.

This gives me cause to pause and wonder.

Personal development, in the mind of Benedict, is not limited. It is transcendent. It makes room for the professor in the classroom and the plowman in the field. It takes into consideration the aptitude of the individual but refuses to weigh individuals on the scales of social strata. It does not unjustly reward those who have social means or segregate and punish those who do not.

One of the things that impresses me about St. Benedict is that he insists on the commonality of all who embrace the Rule and enter into monastic profession. None are considered as least. None are considered as best. All are equally important. All are equally valued. The sons of the rich put on the same habit, eat the same meager food, participate in the same manual labor and sleep on the same straw mattresses as the sons of the poor.

More that causes me to pause and wonder.

Benedict refers to his infant Order as a school for the Lord’s service[1] where we learn to listen with the ears of the heart.[2] What does this mean in the Saint’s mind? What is this school being established by Benedict?

“It is the natural place for baptized human beings who have become children of God and disciples of Christ. Once the Church, our mother, has provided us with this new birth in Baptism, the task of the monastic school is to educate us in the life of perfection according to the Gospel. The baptistery leads to the monastery. In the monastery, we do nothing our whole life long but listen to Christ and obey his lessons.”[3]

[1] RB Prologue 45
[2] RB Prologue 1
[3] Adalbert de Vogue, Reading Saint Benedict, p.34

Friday, November 21, 2008

Monastic Piety

To live as a true lay apostle[1], to take seriously the promise that I signed on the altar of the monastery before the Sacred Presence, necessarily involves a constant vigilance on my part. It is a vigilance that takes deeply within the heart, mind, and soul the words of Christ when he says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”[2]

If I fail to make a conscious effort to daily die to myself, to the false self that I, and the rest of the world around me, can and will make of me, then I live unto myself; I live for pseudo-sanctified versions of vanity and vain glory. Without the conscious effort of daily self-crucifixion, even the good that I do has an inordinately selfish end, raises the false self up on a pedestal, makes me the object of the good that I do. I become a miserable counterfeit, dressed in the right outward garments and looking the part, but not truly the real item.

Monastic spirituality, particularly the spirituality of the contemplative Benedictine orders, calls me to a pietistic focus different than any that I’ve ever been familiar with along the varied paths of my Christian journey. Although the world and sadly a large portion of the Christian world no longer consider this form of spirituality vogue, it still, nonetheless, stands at the summit of Christian being. It still stands and offers to the world a standard, a model, an ideal of piety - of what it means to renounce self in order to follow Christ more perfectly.[3]

I see more clearly, I make a much more personal application of the scene where Christ turned over the tables and proceeded to drive out the profanation of the money-changers,[4] calling them thieves that pilfered and robbed. It is me. It is this temple[5] that needs constant attention - the constant and continual cleansing action that comes in the development of a more genuine piety centered in contrition and sacramental reception.


[1] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Sec. A, para. 3
[2] Luke 9:23
[3] Matthew 16:25
[4] Luke 19:45-48
[5] 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Pearl

“I feel like a thief and a murderer who has been put in jail and condemned for stealing and murdering all my life, murdering God’s grace in myself and in others, murdering Him in His image. I have broken out of the jail in which I lay justly condemned and have rushed even into the place of the King Whose Son I murdered, and I implore the mercy of the Queen who sits here enthroned . . .”[1]

Life. We live it. Its shape is generously, if not altogether, determined by what we see, think, and do. Our own contingent being is influenced and conditioned first by inherited significant others, then by those significant others whom we chose to emulate, and later by the self-perpetuating nature of our collective personal choices and determinations.

We do, indeed, arrive at a personal crisis, more likely a series of personal crises, when we realize how wrong we’ve been, how wrong trusted others have been. Merton’s honesty about himself appeals strongly to me. I can relate to him. He was, in his early life, as much of a scoundrel as me. His choices, my choices, as young men pilfered and profaned our being. We murdered God’s grace in ourselves and others.

It takes more than strength and cunning to break out of the fortress of a false self. It takes the divine action of grace that comes through earthquakes and visiting angels to release us from the prisons that we, and others, build around us before we can walk in the light and fresh air of freedom where truth reigns supreme.[2]

It is truth, alone, that possesses the potential to set us free, into a freedom that possesses, at one and the same time, the potential to irritate and aggravate some while encouraging and inviting others.[3] We cannot walk in the light of truth without paying what may appear to us to be a hefty price for the privilege. But we gladly pay the price knowing that not paying the price will only incur a deeper interior misery that we would rather not live with.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”[4]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, entry on April 7, 1941, his first impression of Gethsemani.
[2] Acts 5:17-19 and 16:25-26
[3] John 8:32
[4] Matthew 13:46

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Discernment

Intuition. Aha. Flash. Revelation. Inspiration. Curiosity. Something itching deep within us that we know is there but can’t quite scratch but know we must scratch. A combination of these, plus an edge of fear.

“Sometimes we see a kind of truth all at once, in a flash, as a whole. We grasp it in a block, in its wholeness, but not in its details. We see its whole perspective, and as long as this truth stands vividly before us, we contemplate it and seem to understand it. We do not understand it at all thoroughly, yet we know it with some certainty, although vague, rough, and in outline. This is especially true of philosophical and religious ideas.

But once this general figure has become our property and, we think, part of us, in this first easy-seeming intuition, and we store it in our minds and take it for granted, then, by a new series of minute, difficult, toilsome steps we begin to find out, elaborately and with a great deal of trouble, different things that are only details of this same big idea, and aspects of it, and parts of it. Thus after seeming to catch the whole idea at once, easily, we go over the whole thing again and rediscover it with great difficulty in all its parts. And this may take months or even years.

We never really begin to understand the idea until this more arduous and discouraging process gets under way and, in this process, we seem to live the idea, working it out in our own experience in the manner appropriate to our own sad, contingent and temporal state where nothing is possessed except successively, in scraps and in pieces.

Yet we always long to possess truth as it is in the Mind of God and He sometimes gives intuitions that seem to imitate, in their completeness, His own knowledge, but their function is to lead us really to know what we think we know from these intuitions, by making them more complete in our own grubbing and rag-picking fashion, after the first intuition. So we sit and think, like men whose houses have burned down grubbing in the ashes for something that might have been saved, until we find some diamond that had been buried in the wall for centuries . . .”[1]

[1] From the Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, entry dated April, 9, 1941, as a young man on an Easter retreat at Gethsemani, discerning his vocation to monastic life.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Self Development

The emphasis that St. Benedict places on continual conversion is something that affects our total being. Certain exterior conditions create an atmosphere that is conducive to an ongoing interior development. The order and structure of routine, spiritual reading and liturgical prayers, responsible work that benefits community, recollection and reflection, silence … all are directed to this end: to foster the possibility of continual conversion.

Putting on a habit, dressing ourselves academically in a new set of ideals, may indeed change our outward appearance, create visual points of identification, and provide a sense of attachment and belonging. I’m reminded, though, that there was a time when embracing monastic poverty as a lifestyle also meant the assurance of clothes to wear, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat – motivations in dire times, although not the purest ones, to enter monastic life.

Benedict turned none away although seekers of life in the monastery stood a long time knocking to get in. One, over time, proved their monastic vocation before they were fully and finally accepted. He had no preference for the affluent, something that is evident in the way the offered sons of the noble and poor were received. The character of transferring monks was carefully observed and determined before they were accepted. Priests of the monastery were expected to continue progressing toward God in all humility.[1]

Garb and position, obviously in Benedict’s mind, do not make a man. Who we are as created beings is not determined by what we do in the world. The inverse is a more accurate measurement of the individual. What we do in the world is determined by who we are.

We live, as pilgrims on a journey to a far distant destination, with an intense focus on deep interior self development. In this sense, in a sense that keeps eternal values in mind, we begin to see, can’t help but see, our greatest necessity - our need for continual conversion. This important self development is an ever present project that is never complete, always ongoing.

To live “as Christ” is not an easy proposition, especially when we consider that “the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.”[2] We like to pick and choose, select only those portions that we can easily assimilate and set aside, or rationalize and explain away, those portions that dig at the roots of our human condition.

[1] RB 58 - 62
[2] Prologue 35

Friday, November 14, 2008

Renaissance

Experience is our greatest teacher, at least it should be, and it can be when we invest ourselves in becoming investigators of truth, students of history. Without the weight of truth, without the ballast of history, we can easily lose our center. Experience, alone, can be likened to a hot air balloon adrift in an unstable atmosphere filled with contrary currents and constantly changing thermal conditions.

The 14th – 16th centuries had their Renaissance when enlightenment supposedly came of age. Individualism was exalted. Art and architecture flourished. More than a few moral restraints were repressed and abandoned in the new light that caused older archaic thought and practice to pale. The social setting was ripe for someone in the religious realm to come along and oppose the Catholic Church and that is precisely what happened when Martin Luther, born into a peasant family in 1483, entered onto the scene.[1] Luther wasn’t the first. He just happened to prevail in his efforts.

The rest of that story is written indelible in history, generously defended by Protestants and as generously opposed by Catholics. It’s obvious that Luther had some legitimate undeniable concerns. These concerns, however, were not unique to Luther’s thought processes. They were already being taken into consideration by conservative Catholic reformers[2] whose views did not include undermining the interior unity of the Church. It’s also rather obvious, at least to me, that the developing social mindset of that time was Luther’s chief assistant in the reforms that he led, reforms that have not ceased, purportedly in the name of God, to perpetuate their schismatic nature over the course of these several centuries.

The existentialism of the past two centuries, a hybrid Renaissance, while more people than not elevate this body of ethical thought to higher planes than it deserves, exacerbates the moral dilemma of modern humanity. Aware of this ethical school of thought or not, name it for what it is or not, existentialism has rolled over modern society, Christendom included, like a giant breaking tsunami.

In an existential society there is no longer any such thing as immorality. Morals and virtue are no longer crowned as the most desirable human qualities. Since amorality, in the forms of individualism and individual rights reign, those who seek to live morally and virtuously are viewed as out of step with the times, put down, ridiculed. Gag-orders, new laws legislated that reflect the mindset of the social times, are written and placed into effect.

Despite the lessons of history, there is no need for moral restraints because morality is no longer an issue. Existential society becomes nothing more than disjointed and expressed individualism. It is no longer a cohesive unit formed around a core of moral values and Christian virtues. Existential reality, played out to its end, is nothing more than empty individualistic anarchy. Perhaps this is an extreme portrayal of existentialism. Perhaps, though, given the potential of humanity for good and for destruction, it is not.

[1] James H. Robinson’s History of Western Europe, first printed in 1902, does justice in telling the story in chapters 24 – 28.
[2] Ibid, Ch. 28

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Seeking God

Once upon a time, the story begins, some seekers from the city asked the local monastic a question:

“How does one seek union with God?”
And the Wise One said, “The harder you seek, the more distance you create between God and you.”
“So what does one do about the distance?” the seekers asked.
And the elder said simply, “Just understand that it isn’t there.”
“Does that mean that God and I are one?” the disciples said.
And the monastic replied, “Not one. Not two.”
“But how is that possible?” the seekers insisted.
And the monastic answered, “Just like the sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and the song. Not one. Not two.”[1]

When we approach life as a spiritual pilgrimage, it doesn’t take long before we conclude that pilgrimage indeed involves some difficult work, some hard going. We are, after all, seeking God in a world that always seems to run interference. There will never be a shortage of allegorical washouts, rock and mud slides, cold winds, blistering heat … things we tend to think of as obstacles to our journey rather than essential elements of it.

We have a tendency to look, after all, for God in what we perceive to be perfections, in successes, in models and terms that are measurable according to our own conditioned and perceived ideals. When others fail to measure up to these ideals, it is easy to accuse and condemn them. When we personally fail to measure up to these ideals, it is easy to rationalize and justify ourselves.[2]

“We are warmed by fire, not by the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our being, not in our outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.”[3]

Here is where the work really begins and ends … in the depths of my own being. This is the hardest of work. This is the most avoidable work. It’s always easier to measure the shortcomings of others, to measure my progress by the standards set by the failures of others, than it is to look within the depths of my own contingent being where I realize that I am as much a part of the problem with humanity as anyone else.[4]

[1] As told by Joan Chittister, OSB, Wisdom Distilled From The Daily, p.195
[2] In using any language that may remotely appear inclusive (we, our, ourselves, etc.), no intent is made to include other’s experiences. I write exclusively of myself. Here, though, the proverb is apropos. “If the shoe fits.”
[3] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 117
[4] Matthew 7:1-5

Monday, November 10, 2008

Creative Fidelity

It’s a little over a mile from where I grew up to where I now live and in March of next year there will be 55 years of time between the year of my birth and the calendar year of life that I will enter into. It’s only a short distance, a short drive, between these two geographic points on the map. But it’s been a long, long road replete with many difficult learning experiences, quite a few mistakes in judgment, more closet skeletons than I care to admit, circumstances aplenty that I could use as excuses, as obstacles too difficult to overcome.

I review the past and wonder how I have possibly survived it. I try to envision the future and imagined glimpses of it, based on where I am now in my natural and spiritual journeys, contain more unknown elements than familiar ones. There is more that I don’t know about future destinations and points of arrival than I know. I only know that I’m slowly traveling, heading in a certain direction, into a future that refuses to disclose the elements and events pertaining to my life. This is a little frightening. It is, at the same time, tremendously stimulating.

This, I think, is the nature of pilgrimage. We know where we want to go. We act in faith on what we sense to be true. We travel in hope despite the unknown, despite the dangers, despite the fact that our going makes us vulnerable. Yet, in the depths of our being, fidelity and its calm assurance bids us peace and continues to lure and woo us. Our steps are slow as we ascend and descend the steeps and grades.

“The fact is that when I commit myself, I grant in principle that the commitment will not again be put into question. It at once bars a certain number of possibilities; it bids me invent a certain modus vivendi which I would otherwise be precluded from envisaging. Here there appears in a rudimentary form what I call creative fidelity. My behavior will be completely colored by this act embodying the decision that the commitment will not again be questioned. The possibility which has been barred or denied will thus be demoted to the rank of a temptation.”[1]

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
And both that morning lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”[2]

The slowness of our pilgrim journey makes us ever more aware of our surroundings, excites our senses, sharpens our awareness. We remain committed despite. We remain committed because. We remain committed even though it may not seem rational or make sense to anyone else. Though we don’t know what we will encounter on the way, where the path leads as it wanders through unfamiliar terrain, we know we are on the right path. An inner conviction, an inner confidence, continues to whisper one word. Onward.

[1] Gabriel Marcel, French Philosopher, 1889-1973
[2] From “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Words

“Nonviolent Himalayan bees: after one had lit on me quietly three times without stinging, I let it crawl on my head a while, picking up sweat for some eclectic and gentle honeycomb, or just picking up sweat for no reason. Another crawled on my hand and I studied it. Certainly a bee. I could not determine whether it was stingless, or just well behaved.[1]

I can stand to take a lesson from the Himalayan bees that Merton encountered on his trip. They showed up unannounced, traveled around his personal landscape, picked up something they were apparently interested in, and then went on their merry bee way. Merton knew that he had been visited. Both Merton and the bees benefited by the encounter. Merton wasn’t stung. The bees weren’t smacked.

It’s really hard for us humans to always say things in a way so that those who hear us feel no sting in our words. Try as we may, even well intentioned words, the best well intentioned words, always possess the potential to be misunderstood, hold the possibility to inflict rather than heal, repel rather than attract, divide rather than unite.

Words. They are the best and the worst that we have to offer. We do need to be careful how, when, and where we say things but, at the same time, I can’t help but to think that a greater tragedy occurs when we consciously dumb down what we are saying simply for the sake of not upsetting anyone. That is, in my opinion, as great a tragedy as scourging and scathing with words, a weapon that I was once proficient with in my earlier fundamental tradition, a practice that I am no longer at all fond of.

Merton’s bees were still bees. They did not change their character simply because they were walking around on a strange head or hand. I’m not an authority on Himalayan bees. Perhaps they were a kind that was stingless. Perhaps, in the Himalayas, the bees had no reason to fear Merton even though his appearance in the flesh was obviously not one they were accustomed to seeing.

In an informal talk given in Calcutta, Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”[2]

This, I think, is the true quest of monastic spirituality … to discover and recover the true essence of who I am and to live in the aroma of this essence. There will always be an assortment of fragrances wafting about me as I pursue this quest, some of them not so pleasant to others, particularly those fragrances that have a way of defining existing and unavoidable dogmatic, doctrinal, and theological differences.

These important differences in one another, undeniably discerned through spoken and written words, demand to be respected more than they deserve to be ridiculed and defied. These differences, though more often serving as polarizing agents, offer an opportunity for dialogue, an opportunity for friendly discussion[3], an avenue that leads toward a deeper understanding, the most fruitful pathway that leads toward recovering our original unity.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 53
[2] ibid, p. 308
[3] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Section A, para. 2

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Day After

His was a deeper emotion, one that didn’t originate in shallower levels of his being. His emotion flowed out of a well of experience that included generations of racial oppression, its roots in a terribly dark time in this country’s history, a well marked by an often misunderstood lifetime of working toward civil rights and dignity.

I’ve seen him hundreds of times in pictures and on television but only once, at this close distance, in person. That was a few months ago when we traveled to Selma to participate in the annual Bridge Crossing memorial as part of a course in social justice. I had never seen him cry and I was quite moved last night as I watched tears wet the face of Jesse Jackson in Chicago at what can only be described as one of the most, like it or not, monumental celebrations in the history of American culture – the landslide election of an African-American, Senator Barack Obama, to the highest political office in this country.

It’s going to be especially interesting to watch as this new chapter in the life of American culture is written one page at a time, particularly from an observation seat in what was once the capital of the Confederacy, a place where racism is still very much alive, a place where skin pigmentation and ethnic backgrounds fragment and color personal perception and acceptance more than anything else. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a divine statement being made in the fact that America now has its first non-Caucasian President, and not just any non-Caucasian but an African-American.

Will this heal the racial schisms in this country or will it serve to heighten tension in areas and pockets historically known for racial bias and bigotry? I’m almost afraid to offer an opinion except to say that morality is an essential element in our lives that cannot come though legislation. It arises from the depths of an interior conversion that calls us to Someone other than ourselves, to Someone who does not measure and weigh us according to the color of our skin.

Jesus loves the little children.
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow. Black and white.
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

My Sunday school teachers taught me this song before I could read. It’s funny. A sad sort of funny, if there is such a thing. There are still no African-American children, or Hispanic-American children, or Asian-American children … only Caucasian-American children … attending that Sunday school.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

It seems to me that there is something very fitting about the elections being held on Tuesday. Tuesday, as well as Friday, happen to be the days of the week when we are encouraged to meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries, the events in the life of Christ that most remind us of the pitiful shape of our human condition – our own condition, our personal and national condition, something that we don’t like to think about and honestly don’t care to confess.

It is also fitting that morning prayers today focus intently upon mercy, faithfulness, peace, and justice. One of its prayers says, “Show us your mercy, Lord; our misery is known to us. May no evil desires prevail over us, for your glory and love dwell in our hearts.”[1]

A bit of ancient wisdom tells us, “Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.”[2] This ancient proverb has been variously translated. Justice. Righteousness. Virtue. The fruit of sin, the second part of the proverb, are also described by an assortment of words. Regardless of how we translate the Hebrew into our vernacular, it’s obvious that sin, and sinful behavior, are clear cut issues that have a devastating effect both personally and nationally.

Today will be a telling day.

Before its end there will be a large camp of rejoicing. There will also be a large camp of fellows bemoaning their defeat and considering how to overcome it in four years. One camp promises more, quick, exponential changes and personal freedoms that, in my opinion, support and further the miserable condition that characterizes what was once considered “one nation under God.” The other promises to hold on to at least some of the important moral vestiges of the past and intimates what many consider to be more of the historical national ideal. Either way, with either victor, the days and years ahead are replete with significant personal challenges for the little man, or woman, endeavoring to live simply and prayerfully, avoiding, as much as possible, all the political friction.

We awoke to a grey, dismal, overcast day. I can only pray that our local climatology contains no prophetic foreboding.

[1] LOH, Tuesday, Week III
[2] Proverbs 14:34, Douay-Rheims Translation

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Trust

One of the dangers of modern life is the tendency to contemporize everything, to see life only in the context of the here and now, disregarding how life in the here and now will affect the future, paying no heed to the revealed truths and lessons of antiquity. Life, in these contemporary times, has more than a tendency to become a complicated mess, one that possesses an unstable nature that is easily adversely molded by life’s changing contemporary scenery.

Merton’s insight into monastic life, when we realize that, as a community, a monastery is a microcosm of the Church, shows us something important about life in the here and now, even when this here and now is lived out in the secular world. It filters down to where we live in our day to day relationships – with God, with our self as we discover this self, in our relationships within our families (another microcosm of the Church), and in the church communities where we gather to worship as faith-communities of believers.

“The monastic Orders are, of all religious Orders, the ones with the most ancient and the most monumental traditions. To be called to the monastic life is to be called to a way of sanctity that is rooted in the wisdom of the distant past, and yet is living and young, with something peculiarly new and original to say to the men of our own time. One cannot become a monk in the fullest sense of the word unless one’s soul is attuned to the transforming and life-giving effect of the monastic tradition. And if this is true everywhere, it is especially true in America – a country in which men are not used to ancient traditions, and are not often ready to understand them.”[1]

I think, and this is largely conjecture on my part, that the primary reason we are not often ready to understand the ancient traditions is due to a lack of trust. We all arrive at this point in time in well pre-conditioned fashion and trust isn’t usually part of the standard equipment. Before we can understand the ancient Christian traditions we have to study them. Before we can trust them we have to understand, or at least begin to understand, them. We simply have to learn, by whatever means, to trust in the ancient traditions of the Church. It has always, and still does, have our best temporal and eternal good in mind.

What Merton is saying is true not only for the monk but also for every fellow pilgrim hoping for their eventual arrival in heaven. It’s obvious that we have to live in our contemporary society. We don’t have another one. This is the world that we must either contend with or conform to. This is the world that we are intended to influence by the lives we live. How we live, the things we say and do, the things we permit or avoid in our lives – all possess the potential to grant permission to others to “go and do thou likewise” whatever that likewise may be.

I’m reminded of something that Jesus said about a millstone.[2] It’s more than a little alarming to think about what Jesus said regarding the millstone when we frame it within the context formed by contemporary theologies, interpretations, and ideologies that fail to take into account a more complete and historical Apostolic testimony. It’s important, and growing more important each day, for me to put my trust, root my sanctity, in the safe and sure wisdom of the distant Christian past.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 148
[2] Matthew 18:6