Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stepping Out Of Vogue

“But for him who would hasten to the perfection of that life there is the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which leads a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not a most unerring rule of human life? Or what book of the holy Catholic Fathers does not loudly proclaim how we may come by a straight course to our Creator? Then the Conferences and the Institutes and The Lives of the Fathers, as also the Rule of our holy Father Basil – what else are they but tools of virtue for right-living and obedient monks? But for us who are lazy and ill-living they are a source of shame and confusion.”[1]

Outside the realm of Catholic literature, and the examples that produced it, there is pitifully little in the world of modern Christendom that focuses on solitude and the contemplative dimension that accompanies it.

It’s really no surprise that those who embark on the adventure of living contemplatively in solitude are viewed by the larger society as strange and out of step with the times. Even within the context formed by modern Catholic culture, with so much of its emphasis on activities to keep the faithful engaged and busy in the life of the Church, as good and needful as these may be, solitude and contemplative living seldom get an honorable mention as a viable way of life.

It’s not such a bad thing to be out of step with these modern times. However, a vocation to solitude and contemplative prayer, perhaps especially in a lay capacity, is a difficult challenge to actualize in this present complicated economy. Monastic spirituality simply isn’t vogue in the 21st Century. Though we are never surrounded by large crowds of like-minded pilgrims on a common journey, we are not alone or engaged in something onerous.

Neither are we are pioneering something new. The pathway was hewn out of the rough and hard terrain by faithful men and women long before we happened upon the slight traces that caught our attention and invited us upon this faith exploration, to this journey back to the very heart and soul of the Christian experience.

Benedict begins the Holy Rule with a simple but hard word. “Listen.”[2] Herein is found the greatest difficulty challenging modern human minds attuned to the myriad stations playing pleasurable and inciting music that drowns out the tunes heard best in silence and solitude.

[1] RB 73:2-7
[2] Prologue 1

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Solitude

“Walking up and down in Bardstown outside Krogers, in the cold, saluted by man, woman, and child. I thought that never, never could I make sense of life outside the monastery. I am a solitary and that is that. I love people o.k., but I belong to solitude. It was so good to get back and smell the sweet air of the woods and listen to the silence.”[1]

Although easily perceived as one, I’m honestly not an anti-social person. I am happily married and enjoy life with my wife. In my work I am engaged with people on a day to day basis and I find it rather interesting that so many of the people that I work for want to sit and chat with me about more than lawn care nuances, despite my being often soaked with sweat and covered with lawn debris.

Although I garner an income from my labor, what I do is also a platform for sharing life in the Gospel, with a Benedictine orientation, in a theologically non-threatening way. Canned evangelistic tactics and proselytizing have no place in this venue. It does, however, bring about numerous opportunities to encourage people to simply trust God when the winds of life blow contrary. The solitary nature of my outdoor work also provides me with plenty of opportunities to pray for people while I am physically working on their lawns and shrubbery.

For these opportunities, and for the income, I say thanks be to God. It’s a pretty neat deal.

Merton’s journal entry on December 13, 1958 strikes quite a harmonious chord with me. He was searching for something when he entered Gethsemani, though I hardly think he could have verbalized it so well early on in his monastic career. But he found it, embraced it, and lived it. Solitude. Both interior solitude and eventually the solitude of his hermitage in the woods.

It took quite a number of years for me to finally recognize and embrace my own solitary nature. I ran from it for most of my life and in my younger years my running put me into a lot of troubled waters. Jonah wasn’t the only one to see a whale’s innards. His literally. Mine proverbially. But a whale just the same.

Once my whale finally literally deposited me on my face crying out to God for mercy and forgiveness, I busied myself in active ministry roles that I perceived to be vocations. Even so, I was always struggling interiorly with something that I couldn’t name, and struggling with it within the context of faith traditions that had, long ago, renounced it as a viable means of Christian faith expression.

Solitude had no name in my young, tender years. But it definitely had a friendly face and form. Though I had experienced it often as a child growing up on the small family farm, I grew so estranged from its reality that solitude became beyond my recognition and embrace.

[1] Thomas Merton, A Search For Solitude, p. 239

Friday, August 21, 2009

Good Beans

Following God’s will for one’s life is not as simple as deciding what brand of pre-ground and pre-packaged coffee gets brewed in the pot each morning. Inevitably, if one is dire in their pursuit of their simple interest in a living and vital union with God, the pathway will lead to the fields in the higher regions where grows the choicest beans.

It’s not the easiest walk to reach the high fields, and reaching the high fields is only the initial steps involved in a lengthy process. Fruit in the basket is a long way from the finished product in the cup.[1] The greatest care can be taken in picking, fermenting, and drying the fruit only to have it wasted by bad roasting, careless blending, or diluting it with fillers to stretch it out and make it go farther in the consumer world of marketplace.

I suppose, for most, that it really doesn’t matter what’s in their cup. I also suppose that it’s a good thing that everyone’s cup isn’t empty. In the large and small scheme of things we are where we are when we happen to be there. Or, as I heard one wise sage on the prairie often say regarding his understanding of God’s will, “we get what we get when we get it.”

Being roasted in God’s oven is, in itself, a hot, lengthy process. It’s a pretty good analogy but it is an incomplete one. It doesn’t take into account the grinding that follows. Or the perking. It doesn’t consider the possibility, or the necessity, of being re-formed and re-sent through the whole process again and again.

This bean, the bean of my own self being fashioned into the image of Christ, is a bean that is never fully finished in this life. It is, in one and the same breath, the most important and most easily neglected process inherent in every human life.

[1] Matthew 13:44-46

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wrestling A Hard Saying

Today’s Gospel reading[1] is, for me, probably the most haunting few verses in the Bible. The reading concludes:

“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Yeah. I know all the rationalizations and justifications that follow the proverbial ‘BUT’ that is so easily regurgitated when these words fall upon our eyes and ears. It does seem to be an extremely hard standard - to trade a wealth of material possessions for a life of material poverty.

The standard imposed on this fellow by Christ seems to be made even less palatable when held in the light of the modern day prosperity doctrines that have been proliferated during the past century. Yet, for all the resistance and argumentation, here is an individual upon whom this standard was imposed. Who can authoritatively say that Christ does not still impose this standard upon individuals as their measure of obedience in following him?

It seems rather obvious that living in poverty does not instill holiness in a person. It also seems rather obvious that wealth and prosperity generate their own distinctive and deceptive brands of impoverishment, things that are perhaps more dangerous and debilitating than possessing absolutely nothing in this world except the promise of the fulfillment of the desire for everlasting life in the eternal world.[2]

It’s a hard saying and I wrestle with it in this world that keeps me sticking my nose to the grindstone for the sake of scratching out a meager livelihood in this sated and inflated economic setting, a setting not of my personal choosing. It seems, where this setting is concerned, that we have all been taken captive to Babylon with hooks in our jaws.

Yet, despite the challenging hardness of Christ's words, it’s more than interesting to consider the strides that have been made for the Kingdom of God over the centuries by men and women who took Christ literally at his word, even when accepting his word meant challenging the setting of their time.

[1] Matthew 19:16-22
[2] Mark 8:36

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Day Well Spent

There will always be no shortage of things that need to be done. Work is, for us, something of an unending thing, especially this time of year. Bookkeeping and lawn care are two worlds apart but they share one thing in common – when you get it all caught up, if you ever do, come Monday you start all over again with the same old pencil pushing or sweat generating grind.

No complaints. It’s that grind that allows us to pay the bills and maintain some slight modicum of a modest standard of living in this crazy economy.

There comes a point, however, when the best thing anybody can do is to simply spend a Saturday doing something that you want to do. Leave the home chores undone. Forget the honey-do’s and getterdone’s. Just hop in the car and burn a tank of gas.

No. That doesn’t sound like the “green” thing to do. But it can flat buy a break from the grinding routine that’s always exacerbated by the daily sub-tropical thunderstorm activity that sets itself upon us this time of year.

We took the slow route meandering our way across country to the Conecuh National Forest in Covington County. We could have gotten there faster but zipping along on the Interstate isn’t our idea of a Saturday leisurely drive. The CNF has been on our radar screen for some time now, particularly the Conecuh Trail with its 20 mile loop and its several shorter trails.

The terrain is characteristic of the canebrake, dense sub-tropical forest, maintained by the good folks at the Forestry Service. There are a generous amount of campsites, both primitive and full-service and, at first glance, I can’t imagine the place being overrun by tourists. No sandy, white beaches and salty surf. No noisy theme or water park.

Don’t look for any fancy dining establishments. We’re talkin’ a fur piece out in the country. We can, however, recommend the Blue Lake CafĂ©. Great cheeseburgers. Drinks are quart sized and served in wide-mouth mason jars. No. Crickets are not on the menu but are available for fishin’ folks.

It seems to be a quiet place visited by people interested in getting away from all the hustle and bustle – a great place to tow our vintage ’73 Sprite, hike some trails, and breathe some air. And the 30 acre fishing pond bids me to drown a few crickets.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Holy Dis-Ease

There is a large gulf of difference lying between contentment with the here and now and the recognition of it. Both contentment and recognition involve degrees of acceptance, however different their respective fruit.

Recognition, and its developing fruit, pierces the lie inherent at the heart of so much of the insanity that fills the world. It also strikes a hard, punishing blow at the world inside my interior dimensions where my own corrupting imperfections originate.[1] It’s only as I begin recognizing and grappling with the workings within this personal dimension that I am able to more clearly distinguish their effects in the world outside of and around me.

Commenting on “the desire of advancing to eternal life urgeth them,” Father Sause wrote,

“For the monk, as for the ordinary follower of Christ, there is no progress that does not tend toward an everlasting union with Christ. The whole plan of monasticism is as simple as that, for it is the perfection of the formation of solid and true Christians.

It is only at death, of course, that the monk’s supernatural life, life in Christ, is to receive its perfection. But in his sojourn on earth it is already part of his very being. To be true to his calling he lives for Christ. He constantly seeks to express that union by works of love, performed out of a desire for an increasing intensity of union. Zeal, motives, action all bespeak a spiritual restlessness.

The monk who is content with the here and now is a contradiction in terms. He has failed to grasp St. Benedict’s plan.”[2]

It seems rather obvious that the world outside the monk, or garnering the comforts, luxuries, and gratifications of the world, is not the monk’s driving life-motivation. The way of the world, at least in principle, is left behind, traded for the higher calling represented in the monastic vows. The monk’s desire becomes a lifelong daily adventure in furthering an ever deepening union with Christ, a course in life that, when conscientiously persued, is never completed inside or, more especially, outside the monastic enclosure.

[1] Matthew 15:19
[2] Rev. Bernard A. Sause, O.S.B., The School of the Lord’s Service, p. 160

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Faith In The Fire

Jon Meacham’s article[1] was more than interesting. I can’t say that it was really illuminating. It was, if anything, more of an affirmation of things that I’ve come to believe, or at least suspect, after observing the trends that have led to where we are today as citizens of the 21st Century.

The trends show no sign of abating. They have, at least in my observation, strengthened to the point of becoming the social norms of our modern society. Reality is what it is and it’s rather evident that the modern democratic state isn’t too concerned about what the Church thinks about matters of faith and morals.

Some Christians are dismayed at the state of things. Change is, after all, something that is difficult to accept, particularly this order of change. It’s rather obvious that Christianity, or those versions of it that were important in the lives of the English speaking men and women who braved the process of coming to settle in this country for the sake of religious freedom, has had to make room for a growing assortment of other faith traditions and life orientations.

“A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.”[2]

Is this a crisis “threatening the very heart of our culture” or an opportunity for a more genuine and historic expression of Christian faith?

I don’t personally find this so threatening to my Sacramental Christian faith and Oblate Promise. What I do find in it is motivation to pursue more deeply and persevere more intently in what I believe and experience in the grace of Christ that transcends the agendas of politics and economics, two realms that both God and Satan seem to generously employ in their service in ways that leave me with little, if any, determining influence.

A genuine Christian identity is not determined by the popular politics, economics, and social norms of any given cultural age as if it was a marionette dancing at the ends of these three temporal strings. Despite our preference for friendly governments, plenty of cash in our pockets, and a citizenry that espouses our own personal views, the practice of the faith embodied in Christ and taught by the Apostles is well equipped to flourish even under the most hostile political, economic, and social conditions.

[1] The Decline and Fall of Christian America, Time Magazine, April 2009
[2] R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, quoted by Meacham in the article.