Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Everyday Life: Meetings

1As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is… RB 3:1

One of our sisters used to say that meetings are the modern asceticism. Instead of rigorous fasting, going without sleep, living in extreme poverty, we go to meetings. It was just an off-hand comment, but one that I have thought about quite a bit.

Monastics are known for their asceticism, practices of self-discipline that are designed to help us focus more on God. Our sister’s comment was meant to be rather facetious, but I think she has a point. In ascetic practices we try to stretch ourselves by focusing more on God than on the basic drives that usually consume our energy. The practices that people associate with monks, celibacy, poverty, obedience are all examples of disciplines that are supposed to help us focus on the spiritual life.

So how would meetings fit into this framework? Most of us think of meetings as an irritating waste of time or at best a necessary evil. How can meetings meet a spiritual purpose?

In the modern, monastic way of doing things meetings are a big part of trying to do things collaboratively. Monastic life isn’t about efficiency. Getting things always getting done in the quickest, cheapest way by the most qualified people isn’t what is most important. What is most important is that everyone has a say, that decisions are community decisions made with input from everyone.

This means that there are lots of meetings. It is much easier to have a clear hierarchy with a few people making decisions, many people implementing the decisions without question and anyone who disagrees being fired. The monastic way on the other hand says that everyone has to be heard, her feelings considered, her gifts utilized. This requires time and makes for ponderous progress. We spend a lot of time listening, explaining, discussing before action takes place.

It is an ascetic practice because we can’t put our own needs first. The modern drive for efficiency and accomplishment has to be subordinated to the needs of the whole community. The most capable and competent have to slow down and listen to the slower and less capable. So meetings are our new asceticism since Benedict reminds us that we walk the way to eternal life all together, not as individuals.

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