Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Everyday Life: Liturgical Calisthenics and the Organ Recital

1 During the winter season, that is, from the first of November until Easter, it seems reasonable to arise at the eighth hour of the night. 2 By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the brothers can arise with their food fully digested….4 Between Easter and the first of November mentioned above, the time for Vigils should be adjusted so that a very short interval after Vigils will give the monks opportunity to care for nature’s needs. Then, at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately. Rule of Benedict 8:1-2,4

7 As soon as the cantor begins to sing “Glory be to the Father,” let all the monks rise from their seats in honor and reverence for the Holy Trinity. RB 9:7

Sometimes Christianity can seem disembodied, a matter of intellectual faith in dogma and propositions, believing in an unseen and invisible God. For some, faith may not seem to have a whole lot to do with the messiness of concrete and corporeal problems, the reality of living life in touch with our bodies, the earth or just day to day reality. People who tend to think of their faith in this way have clearly never been to a monastery. There are few things as physical, down to earth and human as a group of monastics praying together.

Monastic prayer is very physical, very real. It is grounded in the body, even when the body isn’t always pretty. The body always reminds us that the body is what Christ came to share with us in the incarnation, the body in all its wonderful, messy, spectacular and occasionally grumpy glory. Monastic prayer doesn’t consist of disembodied, lilting, ethereal paeans to an unseen God in the clouds. Monastic prayer is embodied, it involves the senses, the body, and recognizing the holiness of things that don’t seem very holy.

We gather three times a day for prayer. In the monastery a bell rings ten minutes before the time for prayer and we begin to make our pilgrimage down the halls to the chapel. Most of us walk into the chapel. Some scurry, several limp, and a few meander in after everyone else is seated. You can tell a lot about people by how they walk. Some are deeply weighed down by life, their burdens bend them over and they seem to grow close to the ground. A few people bounce along, the happy Tiggers of a Winnie the Pooh story, a spring in their step, happy to meet the day and its challenges. A few stately ships seem to part the water as the glide majestically along the corridors and between the waves of chairs. Some people rush in like the white rabbit of Alice in Wonderland as if always late for a very important date. One may seem to silently trumpet her presence while another is silent, unseen and invisible.

Like most monasteries today we are mostly older, sometimes we look like a parade of the lame, the halt and the blind milling around, responding to a rumor that Jesus is in the neighborhood and might be healing people. At a certain age knees give out, hips creak and groan, feet hurt and it is easier to kind of shuffle. In the front row are the sisters who have lost this battle, they are experiencing the final growth in monastic humility that comes from being dependent, waiting for someone to take them into or out of chapel, help them with their hearing devices, hand them a tissue when their hands are shaking too much to get them for themselves. They are living with the final betrayal of the bodies that they bring to prayer.

Finally the grandfather clock chimes the hour, the signal to stand and begin. Some stand the way they breathe and move, calmly, effortlessly without thought. Others know that simply getting up at the end of prayer will be as much effort as they can make while some still struggle and heave with the effort. Our entire bodies have come to prayer.

All our voices intend to praise God as one, but some voices do a better job than others. At the signal an entire menagerie lifts its voice, a chorus that contains nightingales and bull elephants, twittering and trumpeting, some on key and some off on another planet. Some sing with great and joyful abandon, oblivious of how they sound. Others are sure that these joyful people are intentionally scraping fingernails across the blackboards of their souls with their sounds. A few rush ahead as if in a hurry to catch a bus while a few poke and doddle in their prayers, content to bring up the rear of the choir.

In between is the reality of Benedict’s reminder to allow time for monks to “care for nature’s needs.” We are surrounded by the same community that Benedict lived in, where you can tell what people had for dinner the night before, who has a sinus infection, who should have laid off the garlic and whose new indigestion medicine isn’t working. One of our sisters refers to it as the “organ recital.”

Listening to this particular organ recital day after day, and occasionally contributing to it, is a reminder that it isn’t our disembodied souls that will be saved, it is our whole, infuriating, wonderful, broken and blessed bodies that will be redeemed. In the meantime we will have lots of opportunities to anticipate that redemption, to practice patience with our own and others bodies.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What Would Jesus Drive?

2 We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive 3 or retain anything as his own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus—in short, not a single item, 4 especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills.
Rule of Benedict (RB) 33:2-4

10[The cellarer] will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, 11 aware that nothing is to be neglected.

18 Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, 19 so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.
Rule of Benedict (RB) 31: 1, 6, 10-11, 18-19

A while back I was stopped by a State Patrol officer for failing to come to a complete stop at the stop sign at the intersection of the highway leading out of town. I am originally from California and I did what people in most parts of the country refer to as a “California stop,” failing to come to a full and complete stop at the stop sign. (In California we used to call it a “Hollywood stop.” I don’t know what they call it in Hollywood.) As I showed him my license and registration he looked rather puzzled and asked “do you own this car.” I said “well…it’s complicated.”
Actually it isn’t that complicated but I was so preoccupied with hoping I wouldn’t get a ticket I couldn’t afford that I wasn’t thinking very clearly. The truth is that it is very simple. I don’t own a car, a home, a bank account or much of anything apart from way too many books and a variety of odds and ends.

Of course Benedict would probably be deeply shocked and dismayed at how much “stuff” his modern sons and daughters accumulate in modern monastic life, but by the standards of most people we live fairly simply.

In our little town, three miles from the monastery, our cars are known as the “nun-mobiles.” They are all used Toyota Corollas. They aren’t the biggest, flashiest cars in the area, they aren’t the most beaten up rattle-traps, all in all they are pretty unobtrusive, and I think they reflect who we are and how we try to live. Cars are regarded as important, necessary, functional objects to be treated with great care and reverence and shared equally among everyone according to need.

If a sister needs a car for her work she gets the use of a designated car as long as she needs it. If someone is living and working at the monastery there are several cars available for everyone’s use. Anytime someone needs to go to an appointment, run an errand or use a car she uses a sign out sheet to put down her name, what car she needs and when. She takes the keys and puts them back when she comes back. If someone needs a car to go somewhere overnight or farther than the next real town, she asks the sister in charge of cars, tells her where she’s going, when and how long she will need the car. The sister in charge then looks at her schedule and reserves a car.

The whole system works, but it does a take a greater degree of mindfulness than having your own car. Quick, unplanned trips to town in the afternoon don’t always work, that seems to be a popular time and often all the cars are signed out. Peak travel time in the summer can mean that last minute long-distance travel can’t happen or requires the juggling of a limited supply of cars.

For some of us it also means thinking of cars as strictly transportation, a shift away from treating them as a very large purse on wheels, which had been how I always treated my vehicles. Before I came to the monastery, when I bought a new pickup truck, a friend of mine looked at it and said: “Wow, look at all the room in back to throw your soda cans!”

I suppose that is the main difference between a personal car and a monastic car. The car is not my own, it isn’t even like renting a car where I can act as if it is my own for a little while. Cars at the monastery are truly communal, truly treated like Benedict’s sacred vessels of the altar. We try hard to remember to put the front seat back before we put the car away. There are little tags to indicate that the car has less than a half tank of gas, and the sister who goes out of her way to fill up a half empty car with gas receives silent blessings from many people. Of course the sister who forgets to turn off the headlights, leaves the radio on and the seat pushed way up is subject to equally silent, but considerably less charitable thoughts. Car announcements and reminders seem to take up an inordinate amount of time at weekly house meetings.

Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said that God can be found among the pots and pans. I suspect that if she were alive today she would agree that God is most certainly to be found among the cars. For most Americans cars are our ultimate symbol of freedom. No matter what the price of gas, how limited our income or circumstances, we feel we have to own our own car. Cars express who we are, the politically correct hybrid, the politically incorrect Hummer, cars are rolling manifestations of our egos and values. We are our cars.

That is what makes monastic life so different and ultimately challenging to the surrounding culture. In a society that sees individual car ownership ranking perhaps even above free speech as a constitutional and God-given right, we don’t own our own cars and aren’t even guaranteed access to them wherever and whenever we want. Our individual needs are subordinate to the needs of community. I can’t do whatever I want whenever I want. My needs will be met, if I have an emergency and need to get to the hospital that will certainly happen. But if I want to take off on an unplanned trip to the movies, I may have to wait in line.

In a culture characterized by unconscious narcissism it can be a shock to think that perhaps everything isn’t about me. Monastic life is about us, not me, and not only us, but about the lowest common denominator of us. We finally installed automatic door openers on the garages because as we get older fewer and fewer of us could wrestle open garage doors, especially in winter snow and ice. We no longer buy stick shift cars because so few people could drive them. We accommodate the folks with less ability rather than assuming that cars are a privilege of the elite.

Monastic life is a culture of enough. Not too much, not extreme asceticism, just enough. We get what we need, not always what we want. We share, we learn to be patient with ourselves and others through the everyday trials of living with people who don’t put up notes to say the car is less than half full of gas, who don’t turn off the windshield wipers before they turn off the car and our chagrin when we are one of those people.

It has become popular to ask: “what would Jesus do,” and in the latest version: “what would Jesus drive?” Personally I just hope that he would be comfortable in one of our nun-mobiles and that he would also be forgiving when some of us drive off and forget to close the garage door after having complained about those who do.