Friday, May 29, 2009

Pursuit of Holiness

It’s hard to imagine, particularly in this modern age, monastic communities that resembled small cities.

There was, however, a time when men and women in large numbers, in heartfelt pursuit of personal holiness, abandoned the cacophony, luxuries, and comforts of their own contemporary times adjoining themselves to monastic communities that did indeed resemble small cities with populations numbering in the thousands.

There were no promises of fame or fortune, writing contracts or royalty checks. Monastic meals were, according to our tastes, a lot less than meager. Monastic garb was of a coarse fashion of its own. Despite these things, it is rather interesting how many of the well-to-do class turned their backs on their pomp and prosperity and chose the poverty, obedience, and humility of living in monastic community.

There were no lords and ladies here. No people living lifestyles of glamorous self-exaltation and self-absorption. There were only men and women spending their entire lives, as obedient living sacrifices, praying the Psalms with their hearts and lips, working with their hands, disciplining their thoughts, and conquering the desires and ambitions of the flesh.

Their holy desire was simply to live in Christ and to have Christ live in them. They realized their human condition, that their human condition was filled with inherent impediments keeping them from the realization of their holy desire. They chose the harder course, realizing that it would be a difficult course. They were well aware of the “buts”. But they didn’t get stuck on the “buts”.

Those first desert dwellers were something of an oddity. They were quite “out of the norm”. One here in a cave. One there in a cave. The development of their personal holiness became attractive. Others seeking personal holiness began to seek them out. It didn’t take long for this eremitical oddity to become an acceptable norm in religious life. Their pursuit of personal holiness, and their abandonment of the social ills of their times in this pursuit, laid the foundation that monastic culture and spirituality has stood upon for these many centuries and must, if it is to remain viable, stand upon in this century.

The clamoring confusion created by the world in its pursuit of the antithesis of personal holiness has a way of blinding the eyes and deafening the ears. Brazen sinfulness does not want to see or hear the truth, nor admit the truth when its rays of light penetrate the depths of the heart.

However, despite the clamoring confusion, and humankind’s willful acceptance of it, monastic culture and spirituality stands before us as both a historical event and as a present prophetic voice calling the world to return to Christ.

Monastic communities, by their very existence as microcosms of the Church and as the Church’s greatest collective prophetic body, call the Church to return, in a real, tangible, ongoing lifestyle, to the singular purpose found in the pursuit of holiness.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the pursuit of personal holiness, in this modern culture that thrives on self-promotion, sensuality, and carnality, is rejected and laughed at. Even the mention of the Evangelical Counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) in the faith-realm, despite the historical significance of their faith-orientation, generates tirades of prideful self-justifying excuses.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

First Business

We get busy doing this and that and thinking we are doing God’s will. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes our activity turns out to truly be God’s will. Sometimes, though, it turns out to be God’s will only in some general way that gives us enough room to justify what we are doing so we can call attention to ourselves when what God really wants us to do is to simply commune with him, enjoy him, and let him love us. I don’t think this, in any way whatsoever, short circuits or compromises our calling to “be about the Master’s business.”

But I do, more than ever, believe that learning to rest in him is the first business about being about his business. I also think that this first business can be the hardest part about being about his business because, in most circles, it simply isn’t being taught as a viable means to serving the Lord.

They didn’t teach it in the Bible College that I graduated from. Oh. They did a great job of teaching us the Bible and Theology and the mechanics of pastoring and preaching and soul winning and marrying people and burying the dead. They even taught us how to wave our hands and lead singing according to the appropriate time signatures in the hymn book. They taught us a lot of stuff. All of it good and necessary stuff for the line of Christian service we were headed into.

Then they turned us out and sent us forth both as products of themselves and as representatives of the Lead Shepherd.

But they didn’t offer the first class on resting in the Lord. It took some dead monks and some dead and gone Saints from way earlier centuries to introduce me to this first business of serving God. And, like all other worthwhile spiritual pursuits, it’s a journey that leads to a lifetime of exploratory participation.

I have only just begun this conscious journey of resting in God, but, in this beginning, I sense that this journey of learning to simply rest in God is what he has called me to. I think maybe it is what he has always called me to and it’s taken me this long, a lot of trial and error, a lot of humps and bumps, to finally figure that out. And it’s not that I can’t see God’s signature of approval on all the former years of my trying to serve him. It’s there. No doubt about it. But it’s kind of like something that I heard T.D. Jakes say in one of his preaching messages. “It took all that to get to this.”

Make no mistake about it though. Resting in God is no lazy man’s occupation. I’ve found that it’s a constant fight against my own laziness. It’s a constant fight against the devil. Temptation is more real to me than it has ever been although it doesn’t seem to be nearly as attractive as it used to be.

We have the Holy Scriptures and Tradition to guide our steps. We have prayer to unite us with God. We have the Holy Spirit who gives life to our spirit to lead and guide us in the truth. That’s a pretty powerful package. I think the thing that a lot of people miss is that it is also a very gentle package.

Benedictine spirituality, boiled down to its essence, has a simple three-point focus. Ideally, it’s a daily focus that takes all of life and centers it within a balanced framework of prayer, spiritual reading, and work – a personal spiritual program for life that goes back to the first hermits in the deserts and monks in monasteries in the early centuries after the Church was born.

The program sounds simple. And it is. But it’s far from easy since the whole point of it all is to grow deeper in Christ and become more like him. St. Benedict said it this way. “The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.”[1]

This is what I hunger for. This is what I need. Obedience that is solid enough to deal with the only person that is standing between me and God. And that person is me. To become more like Christ, I have to become less like the “me” that me and the world has made of me. It’s a real journey but it’s not a popular journey because there are so many other self-gratifying paths that appeal to people.

I’ve grown to deeply love and admire Thomas Merton. He’s one of those dead monks.

Merton wrote:

“A man who is not stripped and poor and naked within his own soul will unconsciously tend to do the works he has to do for his own sake rather than for the glory of God. He will be virtuous not because he loves God’s will but because he wants to admire his own virtues. But every moment of the day will bring him some frustration that will make him bitter and impatient and in his impatience he will be discovered.

He has planned to do spectacular things. He cannot conceive himself without a halo. And when the events of his daily life keep reminding him of his own insignificance and mediocrity, he is ashamed, and his pride refuses to swallow a truth at which no sane man should be surprised.

Even the professionally pious, and sometimes the pious most of all, can waste their time in competition with one another, in which nothing is found but misery.”[2]

Conversion of heart. Conversion of life. Total surrender to God’s will. These bring us to and fulfill us in our Sabbath Rest.

I find that these things are easy to talk about. They are, after all, part of our Christian and Benedictine vocabularies. Christians do need to talk about them. Should be talking about them. Some are talking about them. Personally, for all the talking, I find that they are more difficult to achieve than most want to admit. They are, though, the very essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

So I keep following. Sometimes stumbling. Sometimes crawling. Sometimes reclaiming something of that “me” that I’m trying to lose. But always committed to following.

[1] Prologue 2-3
[2] New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 58

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Benedictine Stability

We were poor. Not the grinding kind of poverty experienced by Native Americans on reservations or the instability that grips urban slums or third world countries. But it doesn’t take any stretching of the imagination to see that we were some of the poorer in our community. The small farm was very resourceful though. We may have never had a lot of money for luxuries, but we always had enough to eat.

Reflecting on those earlier times, I have to say that those years, centered in animal husbandry and the agricultural seasons, were some of the most stable years of my life. Time was oriented around the seasons of the natural year. There was a lot of hard, hot work in the summer, firewood cutting in the winter, and an occasional scramble before an approaching storm.

It has taken decades, and more lately the help of Benedictine ideals, for me to see and begin to understand the psychological effects of the stability that I experienced in the environment I grew up in - something that was soon traded for its antithesis.

In my teens I traded a stable environment for the instability of the 60’s revolution. Then, in the military in the 70’s, I was never in one place very long. The years that I spent in pastoral ministry were characterized by frequent moves. I’ve spent most of my life on the move, headed down the road, starting over again and again.

My surroundings were always changing. People in my life were always changing. Deep roots and relational strong ties were both impractical and impossible. With places and people always changing, I soon developed a fear of growing attached. Instability, too, has its own set of psychological effects, effects in my own life that I am only now honestly beginning to understand.

Benedict’s spiritual economy, one that chimes with structure and order, offers an effective remedy that holds antithesis at bay. To profess or promise to live by Benedictine standards is far more than simply accepting the rules of a club. “It is, above all, an act of self-dedication to God, made out of love since, as St. Benedict tells us (Chapter 5), it is love that impels the monk to pursue everlasting life.”[1]

I felt the significant importance at the time but I must admit that I really didn’t understand the fullness of it. It’s an understanding that I’m still trying to grasp but my awareness of it is much more fleshed out today than it was when, on the altar before the Tabernacle, I signed my First Promise as an Oblate at St. Bernard’s.

“The monk, after making his promise, draws up a written document and places this on the altar. When we celebrate the Mass, gifts of bread and wine are placed on the altar. These gifts are received by the Church and will be used exclusively for the honor and glory of God, as they are destined to become the Body and Blood of Christ. Like the bread and the wine, the monk’s document is placed on the altar. It becomes a symbol of the monk’s self-giving to the Lord. Monks, through making their profession, are totally dedicated to the honor and glory of God, and to his service.”[2]

[1] Benedictine Handbook, p. 124
[2] ibid

Monday, May 11, 2009

Benedictine Environment

Oblation and living the life of an Oblate of St. Benedict hinges on purposeful devotion and personal commitment to the Gospel ideals of Benedictine spirituality. Monastic spirituality may not affect the weather but it does generate a climate that creates personal environmental changes.

It’s not something that I can take for granted and go about in some willy-nilly fashion. Oblate life is, after all, a distinct vocation or calling to a lifestyle that is set apart from the normalcy of the world while still living in the world. It can easily very well be a lifestyle that is set apart from the normalcy of most modern day Christians while remaining in ranks with them[1].

“Just as the monk takes the vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life at the time of Profession, so does the Oblate implicitly promise at the time of Oblation to live by these values through the commitment to “dedicate myself to the service of God and neighbor according to the Rule of St. Benedict. These promises of Oblation, while not binding under pain of sin, should be taken seriously as part of a carefully discerned lifelong commitment.”[2]

Investiture in the Benedictine community has a conditional nature about it, one that is surrounded by the perimeters that are both recommended for and expected of Oblates. There is a certain gentle performance factor involved in Oblate life. It is one that must not be confused with the trap of mere fundamental legalism that compromises individual human personality and spiritual growth.

The ethical rubrics and liturgical codes prescribed by the Church and our Order, things we might as easily refer to as sound advice from a mother and father who loves us[3], are important aspects that must be taken into consideration where a balanced Oblate life is concerned. I find that it’s altogether too easy to begin listing too far in one direction or another without the assistance of their leverage. They keep me from wandering far off on tangents that do little or no good at all toward furthering a true lay apostolate.

[1] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Constitution, para. 4
[2] Formation Booklet, St. Vincent Archabbey, IV., C.
[3] RB, Prologue 1

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Virgo Mater Domina

She was endowed with special graces and responded to her gifting by saying yes to God’s will for her life. Her virgin womb became the tabernacle where Christ became Incarnate. Mary became the mother of God in the flesh. Then, in no way exalting herself over him, she humbly followed him as one of his faithful disciples. We know her today as the Coronated Queen of Heaven.

I am, in my own Christian journey, discovering the tremendous value in devotionally honoring our Mother. I must admit though that this devotion comes after decades of personally rejecting and neglecting Mary, some of the trickle-down economics of my own Protestant formation and tutelage.

My first significant encounter with Mary, one that spurred me on toward deeper inquiry, happened at a garage sale in Northern New Jersey. I found an old book entitled Mary in the Documents of the Church, published in 1952. I think it cost me a quarter. Its author, Paul F. Palmer, S.J., used few of his own words in the book. He chose rather to use the words of a host of historically significant and reliable sources, some that take us back to the beginning of the Second Century.

I found it hard to argue with the disciples of the Apostles and the disciples of the Apostle’s disciples. It is, in fact, foolish to argue with people that knew the Apostles personally or with those souls entrusted with the task of carrying on the Gospel Mission immediately after them. Who, after all, would know the truth better?

Devotion to Mary has always been present in the Church in one way or another. Despite arguments against her grace filled role in the Salvivic Event, both historic and ongoing, Mary continues to lead multitudes deeper into the heart of Christ, deeper into God’s plan of salvation, deeper into the meaning of life.

“Placed by the grace of God, as God’s Mother, next to her son, and exalted above all angels and men, Mary intervened in the mysteries of Christ and is justly honored under the title of Mother of God, under whose protection the faithful took refuge in all their dangers and necessities. Hence after the Synod of Ephesus (431) the cult of the people of God toward Mary wonderfully increased in veneration and love, in invocation and imitation, according to her own prophetic words: all generations shall call me blessed, because He that is mighty hath done great things for me.”[1]

According to the Statutes And Declarations of the Oblates of St. Benedict, Oblates are to “cultivate a tender devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God and love to pray the Rosary.”[2]

The Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict (1973), written with ecumenical overtones after Vatican II, although not explicitly restating this statute verbatim, do speak to the necessity of maintaining the distinct historical flavoring of our Canonical status. “They (Oblates of St. Benedict) harmonize their private and public prayers and devotions with the liturgical seasons and feasts of the year, as Vatican II recommends.”[3]

Mary is firmly situated in the liturgical seasons and feasts of the year. The month of May is dedicated to honoring the Virgin Queen Mother, the Saint of all Saints. Where liturgical seasons and feasts are concerned, Mary is honored daily by the Church in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The themes for each day of morning and evening prayers call attention to particular aspects of her Motherly life.

[1] Lumen Gentium, Ch. VIII, Sec. IV, 66.
[2] Manual For Oblates, © 1955
[3] Guidelines For Oblates of St. Benedict, Sec. D, para. 4

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thanks Be To God

It was a small crowd. At least in comparison to what it is at times. Perhaps 200 souls gathered for Sunday evening Mass.

I try to refrain, as much as possible, from doing a lot of looking around. Focus. On worship. On the liturgy. Genuinely enter in. Honestly, with the best of my attention and intention, assist (in spirit) in the offering and celebration taking place. Open myself to the reality of the miracle and mystery of Christ’s literal living presence.

Something that I’ve come to after a long life of denial. Adamant denial. Preaching against it denial as a Pentecostal Protestant preacher.

I can’t help but to think of the condition that I found myself in on the prairie, now nearly a decade ago, as something akin to a “Road to Damascus” experience. I was knocked off my high horse. Blinded and rolling in the dust. Brought, in my own foolish zealousness, to the point where I was able, in my condition of dire need, to hear and finally see.

It’s hard not to notice some things though. It’s hard not to form opinions through observation when noticing: revealing clothing worn by some of the communicants, facial expressions devoid of joy, attitudes that seem to indicate mere obligation. And in a mix that transcends age and gender.

These observations don’t apply to all. There are other people-observations that are genuinely heart-warming, ones that grip my heart, ones that generate deep emotions that will, if allowed, result in tears on my face. Perhaps my tears should be redirected toward those whose observation makes me really wonder where their heart is during the Eucharistic Event.

It doesn’t happen all the time. It does happen often enough that I’m reluctant to speak of it. Those moments of ecstasy where crowds and surroundings completely disappear and I am beautifully lost, absorbed by the warmth of God’s love.

Just me, consumed and alone, basking in the radiation of God’s love.

I was still kneeling and unaware when the priest stood for the Benediction until I felt my wife’s hand on my back.

“Bow your heads and receive God’s blessings.”

Prayers over the people and responses of “amen.”

“The Mass has ended. Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

How could I not, in genuine thanksgiving, respond by saying … “Thanks be to God?”

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Agendas

Expectations become driving forces in our lives. We are taught to expect certain results from actions and pursuits. The more the results meet perceived needs and satisfy self-perception, the more the inclination toward the pursuit. The end result of the pursuit really depends upon the perception of needs and self.

There was definitely a Larger Hand working behind the scenes of my own stumbling and groping about for simplicity and sustainability where spirituality is concerned. I prefer to think that I stumbled upon St. Benedict Providentially, that I was being led, unbeknown to me, toward a guide that would lead me on in my pursuit.

My own love affair with monastic spirituality began several years before I discovered and began studying Benedict and the Rule. This love affair began during a season of circumstances, circumstances that necessitated living in seclusion in the hills of Northern New Jersey for two years. It was a season of recovery, a season of discovery.

It was, in numerous ways, some quite obvious and others still budding, a season of new beginnings after years of being pummeled and bludgeoned. Over the decades I had been emotionally and spiritually beaten to a raw pulp. Some of it by my own stupidity. The most debilitating of it though came at the hands of well-intentioned others carrying out their own hidden agendas, agendas perceived by their own selves as Christian.

There really wasn’t much left of me. Even physically. I was practically penniless and clerking a midnight shift in a convenience store. Except for my old camper, parked on the back of a friend’s yard, I would have been homeless on the prairie. I was down to little but skin and bones.

Desperate days. Firmly believing in the Gospel of Christ but no longer knowing just what to believe about it or how to go about living it. Firmly desiring to pray but no longer knowing how to pray.

Thinking back, I have to think that Providence was also involved. Not to reduce me to desperation, confusion, and nothingness. But to deliver me from it.

A lot has changed since then. Exteriorly. Interiorly. Geographically and in the realm of the heart.

I’m still recovering and discovering these years later. In terms of Benedictine monastic spirituality, recovery and discovery, conversatio morum, are never ending. Conversatio morum, continual conversion, becomes our life-agenda and our expectations tend in its direction.

Stewed down to its simplest intent, I think these are the two life-processes that the whole of the Rule focuses on – recovering our true self out of the mess of falsehood that the world heaps upon us and discovering how to live in the dimensions created by realizing our true self in Christ.