Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Manger


Christmas is coming here at the monastery. Yesterday we put up the manger. It is a manger that reflects our place in the world. It is made of thin branches to look something like a log cabin. Evergreen boughs are then used to decorate it all around. A painted scene of an angel announcing good news provides the backdrop.
Then this morning we had the grand procession immediately after Morning Prayer.

Several sisters went into a closet and carefully brought out all the actors in the divine play. Sr. Clarissa stood in from of the manger and took each statue and carefully placed it in the tableaux. There are sheep, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, a crib and finally, in the crowning moment Baby Jesus is placed in the crib.

It has taken me a while to get used to our nativity scene. I confess (and ask absolution) for my comments that it looked like we had “the little manger in the north woods.” Somehow it seemed so culturally incorrect, the very Northern European looking holy family, a manger that might reflect Idaho but not Bethlehem, not to mention some very odd looking sheep who seemed poised to gaze adoringly at the child.

But I have finally figured out (I’ll admit I’m a slow learner) that what I had seen as “cultural incorrectness” is precisely the point. If we re-create a scene from history, something from far-off, long-ago Bethlehem, then we can feel like we are off the hook. If the manger is only history then the birth of Christ happened far from our modern concerns. But that isn’t how it works. God is being born again into our culture, our time, our lives. Christ is being born again, now, here, in our lives. The vulnerability of God, the incarnation, takes on our flesh. The baby in the manger isn’t only a story in history, it is a story of today. The manger is in Idaho, the manger is in your heart.

As if that all wasn’t enough it is true that Christ is still being born on the margins. God comes in unexpected, difficult guises and is recognized by people who are not recognized by society. Jesus was born in the middle of nowhere in a cow stall. Where is he being born today? Who are the people we ignore, look down on, don’t have time for? What are the aspects of our deepest selves that we try to ignore, suppress or deny? Be careful, those are the places of incarnation.

So now I think that perhaps the problem is not that our traditional manger scene with evergreens and pink-cheeked babies is culturally incorrect but that it is not culturally incorrect enough. Maybe those of us who are sometimes slow to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation need something a little more shocking. Maybe the manger needs to have characters who look oddly like the people I live with in a stable with two twin towers.

That’s the point isn’t it? Wherever we are to say: Behold, God is born in our midst.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Monastery Time: Feast Days


Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In most places and for most people these Catholic feast days probably pass with little notice. It is just another work day, a feast day that may not even be noticed. But in the monastery time has a different meaning. Part of the purpose of a monastery is to sanctify time, to hold in deep awareness the alternative reality of the liturgical year with its feasts and seasons.

On a major feast day like this everything is a little different at the monastery, time has a different feel. There are multiple small indications that this day is special, set apart. Often we start prayer later than usual, a reminder that this day is unusual. Everyone dresses up on the major feast days, there are skirts and nice blouses. On a day like today, a Marian feast, there seems to have been a secret memo that went out for everyone to wear blue, Mary’s color. In the hallway, in the refectory, everyone wishes everyone a “happy feast day.”

In the chapel there are special decorations, altar clothes, flowers, the candles are color coordinated. Even the prayer books are different. There is a “feast day” book which marks the celebrations that are apart from the ordinary days. Even the meals reflect the altered sense of time and occasion. The special “Sunday” plates are put out. There is a treat of pie and ice cream at dinner. One some feast days the tables are decorated with cloth table clothes and decorations that reflect the feast.

The special days and times are set apart, they are consecrated through our actions, our behavior, our acknowledgment of the gift of this day. Today we remember the mystery of Mary’s conception without sin. In our rituals we make space in our lives, in our hearts, in our thoughts to ponder, to reflect, to be present to this mystery.

Monastic life is about creating theses little oases of time and space. Together, through this way of life we can acknowledge the holiness of time. In coming together to pray, in acknowledging feast days, in the tangible practices that remind us of the holiness of a particular day we create a way of life that emphasizes the presence of holy.

Maybe this different sense of time is one of the gifts of monastic life to the world. In a world that seems to run at a frantic pace, when for most people time represents the tyranny of the urgent, the monastery is a witness of a different reality. In the midst of the ordinary, on an otherwise undistinguished day, we stop, pause, give thanks and remember. Today is holy. Today we give thanks for the mystery of Mary. Today is a gift, let us rejoice.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monastery Advent


In his Rule Benedict says that the entire life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. He never mentions Advent, but I suspect that the same principle applies.

In Advent we wait for a new birth of God in our lives. Sounds simple, but you may think about it and ask, “isn’t God already in our lives?” Perhaps that is the question of Advent. Is God truly in our lives? Is God a compelling presence in our lives or is God like a piece of our spiritual furniture that we take so for granted that we barely see it any more?

The God of Advent is not a comfortable God, not a God of complacency and easy reassurance. In Advent we are told that everything is about to change. The fortunes of the oppressed will be reversed, God will restore Jerusalem, a savior will be born.

In the monastery we prepare for this coming in silence, waiting and anticipation. We ritualize this sense of preparation as we enter deeply into the profound listening that characterizes Advent.

At the beginning of Advent we went to our woods to cut the boughs for the Advent wreath. In the cold and snow evergreen branches are a sign of continuing life, green in the midst of a landscape that appears to be sleeping. Many volunteers then gather to form the boughs into a wreath. Advent is not a solitary event, it is a communal endeavor, God comes in the presence of many people, into the midst of our world. And so we work together, on behalf of the world to construct the wreath, the sign of our waiting and hope.

The Advent wreath is about three feet and diameter and is suspended on ropes from the ceiling. It hangs in the middle of chapel above the readers stand. Like the wreath we are suspended in time and space during Advent. It is a time of waiting, watching, being silent and open, neither here nor there as we await the new coming of God. The wreath is round, a circle that has no beginning or end. It is a symbol of eternity, our God who is beyond all human measurement of time and space but who will come and be born in humility and limitation into human reality.

The wreath is suspended above the Advent candles of the four weeks of Advent. When we gather for Evening Praise we begin in darkness. After the clock chimes we sing, still in the dark: “holy darkness, blessed light, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight, as we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” The leader lights the candle and prayer begins.

Darkness is very appropriate for Advent. We wait without seeing, without understanding exactly what will happen, we wait in hope and trepidation. What will happen will be the initiative of God. It is our job to be still, to be open and let God come in God’s own time. As we light the candles we manifest our hope and assurance that God has come, is present and will come again into the darkness of our lives and our world.

These are profound mysteries and so during this season of Advent we set aside time to cultivate this attitude of silence and waiting. In the afternoons there is a special time set aside for lectio, the Benedictine practice of prayerful reading. It is a time to let go of the frantic busyness that this season tends to evoke and to be still, listening in hope for the coming of our God who will make all things new.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Monastic Prayer: Dwelling in God's Tent (part 3)



In the last installment we discussed how Benedict used the image of dwelling in God’s tent from Psalm 15 as an image of contemplation and the goal of monastic life. But there is another important tent image that Benedict may have had in mind. Maybe Benedict thought that as monastics we would be able to do what Peter wanted to do so badly.

Tent of the Transfiguration


In Matthew’s Gospel the account of the Transfiguration Jesus goes up to the mountain where he is “transfigured.” He is in the company of Moses and Elijah and his face and clothes are radiant, transformed. Peter, who is on the mountain along with Jesus, James and John, wants to stay there. Peter offers to build three “dwellings” so they can remain on the mountain in the midst of this transforming experience.

The Latin translation of the Bible which Benedict would have been familiar with uses the term tabernacula for Peter’s offer to build three “dwellings.” Benedict must have remembered Jesus on the mountain in the Transfiguration, a mountain like the holy mountain of Psalm 15. In the account of the Transfiguration Jesus is in the company of Moses, the one who lead the people on the journey with the portable tent of God, and with Elijah the prophet frequently invoked in conjunction with the coming of the Messiah. This combination of symbols could easily be seen as similar to the idea of dwelling God’s tent found in the Psalm.

Peter wanted to build a tent on this mountain and dwell in the presence of the glory of God. In this case though, the invitation and vision of the tent or tabernacle on the mountain was a fleeting one, Jesus and Peter were called to go back down the mountain to fulfill their destiny. But the vision of God’s holiness on the mountain would have been one that stayed with them. Indeed in the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Church the account of the Transfiguration is the basis for the spirituality of the “Taboric light” a personal encounter with God like that of Jesus on Tabor.

Conclusion


So perhaps this is ultimately what Benedict wants us to remember. Although we need to live lives that are blameless and just, the whole point of the running, the journey, is so that we can dwell with God. Monastic life isn’t about whether we live in a monastery or are monastics living outside monastery walls. That isn’t the key to the Benedictine way of life. Ultimately we come to the monastic spirituality to listen and respond to that most delightful invitation, the voice of God, our beloved, who says: come dwell with me, share my tent, abide in my love.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Monastic Prayer: Dwelling in God's Tent (part 2)


Benedict sees that monastic life is all about the journey to dwell with God, to know God deeply and intimately in this life as well as the next. To help his monks understand that this is the goal of their life he uses Psalm 15.

The Tent in Psalm 15

In verse 23 of the Prologue Benedict quotes Psalm 15:1: “Who will dwell in your tent, O Lord, who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” The use of this psalm evokes several layers of meaning. The Latin word for tent in the psalm is tabernaculo. His audience, who knew the psalms and the Bible much better than we do, would have recognized that the psalm referred both to the worship in the temple at Jerusalem but also evoked the memory of the wanderings in the desert.

The word tabernaculo in the psalm was also used for the portable tent or tabernacle of God in Exodus. This tabernaculo, accompanied the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, on their journey from slavery to freedom. God dwelt in their midst in this tent. The tabernaculo, or tent, was the tangible symbol of the reality that God was going with the people on the journey. God did not desert them but was present in their midst, dwelling with them in the desert.

By using Psalm 15 Benedict ties together the journey with “the gospel for our guide” with the journey of Jesus’ forbearers. We are part of a long line of pilgrims accompanied by God on our journey, from slavery to freedom, our way set before us by the Gospel of Christ. The second part of the quotation “who will find rest on your holy mountain” then speaks to the end of the journey. The people of Israel didn’t die out in the desert, they made it to the promised land, they were finally able to rest because God kept God’s promise. They inherited the land and worshiped God in stability. While the psalm alludes to the exodus, it is also liturgical psalm of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of worship for the Jewish people.

Given the way Scripture was interpreted in the 6th century Benedict wouldn’t have seen this psalm as simply a part of a historical reference to the practices of Jewish temple worship but would have interpreted it from a Christian standpoint. So the question posed by the psalm becomes a question of Christian believers. Are we worthy to worship God? Do we put our faith into practice and not take God presence and action for granted?

This takes us to the second important part of the tent image. We don’t just wander in, plop down and live in the temple. Listen to the verses 24-27:

24 After this question, brothers, let us listen well to what the Lords says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent. 25 One who walks without blemish, he says, and is just in all his dealings; 26 who speaks the truth from his heart and has not practiced deceit with his tongue 27 who has not wronged a fellowman in any way, nor listened to slanders against his neighbor.

So dwelling with God and being in God’s presence, is something that requires some action on our part. Benedict has built up to a rhetorical peak in this section. The Prologue began with the call to listen, God calling out in the marketplace, setting out on the journey. The questioning seems to build in intensity as we get to verse 23, the quotation from Psalm 15: “But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet: Who will dwell in your tent, O Lord, who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” The answer for the disciple, the climax of the series of invitations and questions, comes in verse 25, the center of the fifty verses of the Prologue. The words of the psalmist provide the answer of God.

The journey to dwell with God is not an intellectual assent of faith. It is made up of concrete actions. We are to “walk without blemish,” and to be “just” in all our dealings. The psalm seems to be speaking of a pattern of behavior and lifestyle. The actions mentioned speak to what it means to live in community don’t they? Do we speak the truth? Do we try to be just and fair and not act out of old hurts and jealousies? Do we listen to “slander against our neighbor?” We hear an echo of Benedict’s prohibition on murmuring. In community it is easy to find all kinds of things negative to say about our neighbors, and it precisely these sorts of actions on which we will be judged worthy, or not worthy, to dwell in God’s tent.

But ultimately the psalm is not meant to scold us, a form of abbatial finger shaking trying to get us to be good. Benedict wants us to dwell in the in God’s tent, to listen to the invitation of the delightful voice. It’s possible that Benedict had in mind another allusion to the tent.

Final installment: Dwelling on the mountain of the Transfiguration

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Visitation


When Elizabeth heard that Mary was going to come and visit, did she start to clean the house? That is one of the questions about Luke’s version of the Visitation that I’ve never heard asked. But it makes sense doesn’t it? That is what women tend to do, get the house ready for guests, make sure that the nice towels are put out in the bathroom, the good plates are rescued from their cupboard and everything is dusted and shined.

I’ve been thinking about the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth because we are having our own “visitation” this week. Just as Mary visited Elizabeth to be with her, support her and to be supported and encouraged in return, so too we have holy women coming to share with us. In Benedictine monasteries every 5-6 years sisters from other monasteries come and help us evaluate how we are living our monastic life. This process is called “visitation.”

We welcomed our “visitators” on Monday night with a special prayer service and party afterwards. And of course with a tour of newly cleaned and shined monastery! Since then they have been meeting with most of our departments and committees and reviewing piles of documents. They meet individually with each sister who wants to talk with them. They share our life, coming to prayer, meals and meetings with us.

This is a week of listening. Like the visit of Mary and Elizabeth it is holy listening. Holy listening isn’t always easy listening. I always imagine Mary and Elizabeth exchanging tips on how to cope with vicissitudes of pregnancy, what helps for morning sickness, what to do when you feel like a whale and can’t get comfortable, how to handle perplexed husbands who are still trying to understand what is happening. In the same way we share our hopes and frustrations with our visitators about what it means to bear God in our world today. As monastics we live in community, and that never ending process of rubbing against one another day in and day out, year after year, is how we come to transformation, to new life in the Spirit. Just as Mary and Elizabeth supported one another so we, too, need to be able to share with people who know this way of life, and can reassure us that there is indeed new life gestating in our midst.

At the end of the week, after reviewing and reflecting on all they have heard and seen the visitators will write a report of their impressions that they will share with the community. In many ways this visitation report will be our common “Magnificat.” When Mary and Elizabeth greeted one another Mary’s response was her beautiful, challenging hymn of praise. She sang of what God was doing in her life and in the lives of the people of God. At the end of this week we too will be able to share the great things and the challenges of how God is working in our lives here in the Monastery of St. Gertrude.

Like the Magnificat the report will contain both affirmation and challenge. Mary sang of a God who turns the world upside down and upends the complacency of the self-satisfied. This will be a good thing for us to keep in mind as we hear some specific recommendations for how we can better live into our call to progress on this “Gospel way” as disciples of Christ and daughters of Benedict. At the same time we will hear what we already know but need to be reminded of, that we are a deeply faithful group of women who are doing amazing things for the Reign of God and our faith will continue to flower, mature and bear fruit in our world for many years to come.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, our visitators will only stay for a week, but in each case we will all be transformed by the event. Together we will retain the memory of a new song of praise to God, a new vision of God working in our lives and a new and renewed sense of hope for the future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Psalms: A 2x4 Moment

Praying Psalm 95 is like unexpectedly being hit upside the head with a 2x4. I think that is why Benedict wants monks to pray Psalm 95 every morning and why we don’t.

In his Rule St. Benedict provides extensive, specific provisions for how we are to pray the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours every day. The Office is primarily Psalms and while some are distributed randomly others are prayed everyday at the same time. Psalm 95 is to be prayed every morning.

Psalm 95 certainly starts innocently enough, the first several verses are a paean of praise to God the creator, a reminder to give thanks and praise for all we have been given:

1 O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

So far so good. We have an important call to celebrate our relationship with God, a humbling yet joyful reminder that all we have and all we are is from God. We are the sheep dependent on the shepherd and we acknowledge our humility. We would certainly all feel pretty good if the Psalm ended there. It would be a good and appropriate way to start each day.

But then comes the 2x4 upside the head:

7 O that today you would listen to his voice! 8 Do not harden your hearts,
as at Meribah as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work
10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not regard my ways.” 11 Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”


What on earth happened!? Our nice, safe, happy Psalm of praise got ugly didn’t it? We are brought up short by the admonition: “O that today you would listen to his voice.” The Psalm tells us, shouts at us, that the people of God tend to not listen to the voice of God. The Psalm is forcing us to see that the disobedience of the people during the Exodus wasn’t just a far off historical event. Every day we face a choice. Will we listen and respond to God’s voice or will we be like the people in the desert who didn’t trust God, who didn’t listen, who murmured and complained.

This is not an easy Psalm. It is not a safe or comfortable view of God. If we pay attention to this Psalm we will be left uncomfortable, uneasy, chastened and worried. Does this mean that we should fear a terrible God of anger? Should we simply reject the Psalm?

Perhaps Benedict mandated that this Psalm be used every morning simply because he was so deeply aware of human nature. Human nature is not inherently bad or evil, we are created in the image of God, but we easily slip into complacency. We begin to take things for granted. We begin to take God for granted like a building we pass by everyday without really seeing.

This is what Benedict wants us to avoid. He wants us to begin each day with this clashing, discordant Psalm, this beautiful call to praise and disturbing warning that we cannot fail to remember the God of our salvation. Benedict says listen! This Psalm says listen! Listen and pay attention. Listen today. Give praise to God today. God is always present, may we always be open, always thankful for the gifts of God.

Starting every morning being hit upside the head with a 2x4 isn’t easy, but perhaps this urgent wake-up call will allow us to start each day with a new depth of gratitude to the God who will lead us through the day with love.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why The Psalms?


With all the popularity of Benedictine spirituality these days one topic doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often. Lots of books put an emphasis on balance, humility, respect for the material world, silence and all sorts of other things but the Psalms are rarely mentioned. That’s odd because for Benedict the Psalms permeate the life of the monk, the air of the monastery is suffused with the words of the Psalter. Benedict has his monks repeat the cycle of 150 Psalms, in one week. The formation of new monks emphasized memorizing the Psalms. Benedict spends several important chapters of his short Rule setting forth which Psalms are to be said at which prayer times.

So why doesn’t contemporary Benedictine spirituality focus more on the Psalms? I suspect that we don’t really know what to make of the Psalms these days. Most people have a few Psalms that they especially like, usually the ones that seem comforting and hopeful. Some people have a few Psalms that they think really shouldn’t be part of Scripture at all since they are perceived as too violent and bloodthirsty. For the most part we tend to take the Psalms for granted and don’t make a connection between the Psalms and our desire for a deeper spirituality.

How the Early Church Read the Psalms

The understanding of the Psalm in the early Church was much different from our own. Modern people see the Psalms as 150 unrelated little poems that don’t have much in common. We read the Psalms as unrelated to the rest of Scripture or even to other Psalms. Scripture study today emphasizes discerning exactly when the Psalm was written and for what original purpose in the original context of Israel some 3000 years ago.

This way of reading Scripture would be completely and utterly foreign to the readers of Benedict’s time. They saw the whole Bible, all of Scripture, being a single, organic whole. The Bible wasn’t a collection of basically unrelated books composed over a period of a thousand years for a variety of different purposes and audiences, for them it was one book that was to be read as the whole, complete story of God’s plan of salvation. In other words Genesis and Revelation weren’t separate stories they were all part of one story. To these readers everything in the Old Testament, foreshadowed, was a hint of what was to come, in the New Testament. An image from the early church writer Iranaeus helps us understand this idea. He said that the entire Bible was like a mosaic, innumerable individual tiles make up the larger picture of salvation history. In other words each verse or story from Scripture wasn’t to be read as a single entity, each piece of Scripture was a small piece of the whole picture of God’s plan for salvation.

Against this idea the early Church considered the Psalms to represent an especially clear synopsis of the rest of the Bible. The book of Psalms was read to be a summary of all of salvation history. The early writers could see the Paschal Mystery, the saving event of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection contained in the Psalms.

By this point most people reading this are probably wondering whether the early Church writers were reading the same book of Psalms that we do! The reality is that we probably can’t really re-capture the way that our foremothers and forefathers read Scripture. They knew Scripture much better than we did and would form chains of association based on individual words or phrases that are extremely hard for us to even follow today. On word or phrase in a Psalm would remind them of something in Genesis which would in turn remind them of something in the Gospel of Matthew. As an example, try reading some of St. Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms in which he seems to wander in a stream of consciousness from one apparently unrelated topic to another. Our modern mind set is just very different and we probably cannot delve into Scripture in the same way or to the same depth as these great early writers.

Psalms as “Mirror of the Soul”

However, there is a way the early writers read the Psalms that can be helpful to us. The Psalms were called the “mirror of the soul.” The Psalms reflect the depth and breadth of human experience and when we read the Psalms we see ourselves reflected in their words. You don’t have to know the Psalms very well to see that the Psalmist never holds back in his relationship with God! The Psalms are shouts of effusive praise, they are cries of deepest despair, they recall the wonders of history and call for vengeance against enemies. There is probably no aspect of human experience that is foreign to the Psalms. Early writers saw this and encouraged people to see their own experience in the Psalms and to use the Psalms for the healing and transformation of their soul. The Psalmist always comes back to God, whether is joy and praise or despair and hopelessness, God is the foundation of the Psalmist’s life.

So how can we modern people pray the Psalms? Perhaps the most important thing is to simply slow down and immerse ourselves in the Psalms. We pray with Scripture by not reading it quickly for information the way we would a newspaper, but to read it slowly and let it speak to us. We can allow the words of the Psalms to become our words, they can express our deepest feelings, feelings that we don’t want to express or have trouble articulating. We can let the Psalms speak to us, we can listen deeply as the Psalms speak to us about the action of God in our life and world.

In monastic prayer the Psalms are an ocean of God’s presence. Go ahead and dive into the ocean and see where the tide takes you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is Monastic Prayer?


It seems obvious to say that prayer is the heart and center of monastic life, whether for professed monastics or oblates, but what exactly is monastic prayer? How is monastic prayer different from other forms of prayer? Trying to define monastic prayer is probably as impossible as it is presumptuous. But perhaps it can be helpful to outline a few characteristics to help us enter more deeply into the riches of our monastic heritage.

Pray Without Ceasing
One of the most challenging verses in Scripture has always been Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) For the early monks to pray without ceasing became a central quest and goal of their lives. When men and women moved to the desert to live lives focused solely on God they searched for ways to make their whole lives a prayer. Many practices of the desert fathers and mothers focused on prayer. They would memorize and pray the Psalms. Often they would repeat and meditate on certain key verses such as “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.” The solitude and silence of the desert helped monks constantly bring their awareness back to God, to be mindful and present to God in every aspect of their lives.

We see strong echoes of the unceasing prayer of the desert in Benedict’s Rule. His monks memorized the Psalms and then prayed them together seven times a day. The daily schedule of Benedict’s monastery then provided for 2-3 hours a day for lectio divina, praying with Scripture. The activities of everyday life in the monastery are circumscribed by prayer. There are prayers at meals, for guests, when starting a particular ministry, for those who are absent, and so forth. Prayer in the monastery is indeed continual. Benedict structures his way of life so that the activities, the awareness of the monks, is always being brought back to God. In every aspect of daily life prayer permeates the consciousness of the monk. All that the monk does involves a constant reminder of the presence of God. The goal was for the monk to come to a point where he or she didn’t need to be praying the Divine Office, doing lectio or saying prescribed prayers, to be aware of the presence of God. Eventually the monk would get to the point where every breath and every thought was focused on God. The external, prescribed prayers, the designated times for prayer in chapel or the time set aside for lectio divina, would be so internalized by the monk that he or she would be aware of God’s presence in all things at all times. This is prayer without ceasing that we are all striving for.

Prayer Outside a Monastery
So this sounds great for people who live in a monastery, when the whole day is centered around a common practice of regular prayer, but what about people with busy lives, jobs, and families far away from a monastery? Perhaps the key is that the prayer practices Benedict talks about aren’t important in and of themselves. The point of the Divine Office or regular lectio isn’t so that you can check them off your “to do” list every day. Praying the Office or having a set time for lectio isn’t important in and of itself. What is important is the discipline of praying regularly.

We do activities on a regular basis so that they become second nature, an integral part of who we are. Most of us don’t have to make a decision to get out of bed in the morning (except on an occasional Monday perhaps). Getting out of bed is just what you do. You don’t have to think about it. In the same way Benedict provided for lots of structure for prayer so that eventually his monks would just pray naturally, at all times in everything.

Most of us aren’t anywhere near that kind of prayer. Most of us struggle with prayer, including those of us who are members of monasteries! But the key is that monastic prayer isn’t just for people who live in a monastery or who have made monastic profession. Monastic prayer is simply about perseverance and faithfulness to prayer even when it is a struggle. Monastic prayer means praying where we can, as we can. We try to create a practice of prayer that works for us that we can be faithful to so that eventually prayer will not just happen at specific times and places but prayer will be the essence of our lives.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Bells


Our monastic life is circumscribed by bells. We have chimes that are heard over the intercom ten minutes before time for prayer or Mass. The large bells are then tolled to remind anyone outside that it is time for prayer. After Mass or Mid-Day Prayer one of the bells is rung for the Angelus prayer. After a sister dies we toll the bell as a way of announcing her passing. During a funeral we begin to ring the bells as everyone moves up to the cemetery and we continue to ring them until people begin to come down.

For us the bells are part of a function of monastic humility, they remind us to come back to our center who is God. There seems to be something in the human condition that our default mode is to be self-centered. When we aren’t thinking, aren’t aware, we automatically act as if we are the center of the universe. Our own personal concerns and desires become the most important thing going on.

The bells are a wake-up call, sometimes they are a rude awakening, giving us a rough push off of our throne at the center of our lives. The bells remind us that this life is about God. The bells call us to be mindful, to be present, to listen, to come into the presence of God. Benedict calls on his monks to drop everything when they hear the signal for prayer. It isn’t easy to do. Each of us is the star actor in the drama of our lives and we don’t like to be interrupted. The bell always rings just when we are in the middle of an important project, just when we are finally inspired in a piece of writing, just when we are in the middle of something important. It is at that moment we have to drop everything to go and pray. This isn’t praying when we feel like it or when we decide that the Spirit has moved, it is praying according to someone else's schedule.

The bells remind us that time is not our own. Every moment is a gift, not an entitlement. Hearing the bells interrupts us. They say: listen, pay attention, what are you doing with your one and only life? Time will not be repeated. The moments are one time gifts, will you let them slip away or stop and give thanks in an attitude of stunned amazement?

The bells themselves are a gift. Bells are unique to a monastery, most people don’t have anyone to ring a bell to remind them to come to prayer, to stop and pay attention to God in the gift of the moment. This is why Benedict says that his Rule is a little rule for beginners. Monastics are in the remedial course of spirituality, they have external bells and reminders to bring them back to the presence of God. The bells are a luxury of the monastery.

But for everyone, monastics or not, it is not the bell itself that is important. You can live in a monastery and ignore the bells and continue with your self-important busyness rather than respond to their call. Outside a monastery you can create your own bell, your own reminder and call to stop, to listen, to pay attention and come back to the gift of God in the present moment. It is harder outside the monastery but we all have a choice. Will we listen to the bell, will we stop and give thanks, will we return to our center who is God? Listen says the bell. Listen, it is the call to humility, the call to come back to the center, the call to be present to God.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Yogurt Cups


Every time Sr. Carol Ann sees a plastic yogurt cup she starts to twitch. OK, that isn’t fair, it isn’t like her mother was scared by a carton of yogurt when she was pregnant with Carol Ann and that has caused a life long fear of yogurt, the problem is recycling. We recycle almost everything here, from bottles to cardboard to foil to little plastic yogurt cups. The problem is that there is someone who eats yogurt and then just throws the container in the trash, leaving it for Carol Ann to fish it out, rinse it and put it with the rest of the recycling.

It isn’t a big issue, it is just one person and one little plastic container, but in some ways it symbolizes what humility is all about. Humility is central to Benedictine life. In Benedict’s Rule he sets forth the idea that we grow into humility. We progress in humility slowly, step by step. We gradually move from fear to love, from being consumed with ourselves to being filled with God. This growth is the work of a life time and it is appropriate that the work of becoming humble consists not of great, grand gestures and ostentatious accomplishments but little actions and incremental progress.

Humility is a lot like recycling yogurt cups. It is a little thing. It seems hard to believe that it will really make any difference whether I throw this container away or take some extra time to clean it and put it in the recycling bin. It requires a different way of seeing the universe. It takes humility to realize that humility itself is the sum of many, many little actions that flow from a new way of looking at the world. Recycling is a small act of reverence for the universe, a tiny way to make a difference, to make sure one less piece of trash winds up in a landfill.

Humility is a way of giving thanks for all that we have been given by God. In humility we give up the some of the room that is taken by our self-centeredness and give ourselves the room to be thankful. The opposite of humility is arrogance, the arrogance that takes gifts for granted. We are arrogant when we see a sunset and are too preoccupied to not let it take our breath away. We are humble when give thanks that we have so much food that we have the privilege of worrying about containers rather than where our next meal will come from. It is arrogance that assumes nothing I do will make a difference. Humility allows us to give thanks for little actions, gestures and gifts. In humility we give thanks for those who put their heart into making a difference for our planet.

In Benedict’s ladder of humility, the last step describes humility as a state in which perfect love casts out fear. That is the key to humility and to recycling yogurt cups. When we do all the right things, when we carefully wash our yogurt cups and put them in recycling, but we do it out of duty, or guilt or because we are afraid Sr. Carol Ann will discover that we are the ones who have been throwing them away, we aren’t acting from humility. Our actions may be good, the right thing is done, but neither our selves nor our earth has been transformed in the process. When we come to a place of humility we are able to do the smallest things out of love. In this transformed place we come to see that the love of God, love of God’s gift of creation, love of our brothers and sisters, is manifested in all we do. In this place even the smallest actions, the smallest yogurt containers in the recycle bin, are expressions of reverence, thanks and care.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Applesauce

At first humility and apple sauce don’t look like they have much in common, but I think they do. A couple of days ago I helped pick apples that we will use for apple sauce. The apples were from an old apple tree and we mostly picked them up off the ground. The next day I realized, or my legs told me in no uncertain terms, that I don’t usually do so much bending. So as I walk around rather tenderly I am reminded of what goes into our homemade applesauce. Normally when we eat apple sauce or any other processed food we simply open a can, jar or package without thinking how it got to our plate except to remember our trip through the grocery store.

On the other hand when we eat apple sauce here at the monastery we know where it comes from and that is part of humility. Anyone who has ever read the Rule or any Benedictine spirituality knows that humility is a big topic. Benedict delineates 12 separate steps on the “ladder” of humility. It is a leit motif in the Rule, in the background as the unifying thread throughout the many practical provisions of everyday life.

Humility is often explained in abstract terms, as a goal or ideal, a personal quality. But it may be helpful to explore what humility may look like in the everyday life of a monastery or anyone’s everyday life. For most of us humility is the very steep ladder that we don’t often feel we are ascending either quickly or well, but humility is also a characteristic that permeates our way of life. Humility is what reminds us we are not in control, that we are vulnerable and dependent. Humility is what allows us to be open, grateful, to receive everything as gift.

Humility comes from the root word humus, or earth. When we are humble we are reminded not of our exalted status but of our lowliness, our rootedness, that we were created from the earth. Making apple sauce helps bring us to that state of gratitude, not clinging and entitled to everything we can grasp, but standing with hands open to the gifts of God and the earth.

The humility of apple sauce connects us with the reality that our food does not magically appear in a package from an antiseptic grocery store. We don’t automatically get apple sauce just because we want it, we will get apple sauce if the gifts of God and our hard work come together in a serendipitous union. If the rains don’t come, if the bugs and the blight do come, there won’t be apples. If people aren’t willing to risk sore legs to pick the apples, if others don’t take time out of their busy lives to sort, cut, cook and prepare the apples, if others don’t give of themselves in service to set it out at the meal, then there will be no apple sauce.

There is no entitlement, there is presumption that there will always be homemade apple sauce on the table, it is a gift. It is a gift of many peoples labor, a gift of God who holds the harvest, it is a gift that we can never take for granted. For Benedict humility is about being filled with God rather than ourselves. The final summit of humility is coming to a place where love casts out the fear. At this summit of humility love will banish the fear that has fed our illusion that we are the center of the universe. At the top of the ladder of humility we will no longer be caught in our sense of arrogant entitlement. When we are humble we will be thankful for all the gifts that fill and sustain our every moment. In humility we can give thanks for the smallest gifts, for homemade applesauce, because we know that the smallest gifts are very great indeed.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eating the Fruit of Another’s Obedience

There is an old story about the monk who was told to water a dry stick. For three years Abba John hauled water from a far away oasis in the desert and watered the stick. It took him most of the day, every day, to accomplish the task. At the end of three years the stick blossomed and the monk’s spiritual father took the fruit and showed it to the other monks saying “behold the fruit of obedience.”

To modern ears this story from the early desert monks of the 4th century sounds odd at best, ridiculous at worst, but the reality is that sometimes people we will never know will eat the fruit of our obedience.

Earlier this month we had the gift of hosting two sisters from our founding community in Sarnen, Switzerland. More than 125 years ago, two women none of us have ever known made decisions that still affect our lives. Worried about political unrest in Switzerland, Abbess Nicola Durrer decided to send sisters to start a new monastery in America. She chose Sr. Johanna Zumstein, who was only in her 20’s, to head this new endeavor. Apparently Johanna did not want to go. In our community history she is portrayed as weeping and hugging the convent walls in Sarnen before she leaves for America under obedience to the Abbess. This is poetic license, no one recorded exactly how she reacted, but it is clear that she only went because she was asked to by her Abbess.

Today, sixty sisters in far off America exist as the fruit of her obedience. For Johanna Zumstein going to America probably made as much sense as watering Abba John’s dead stick. She loved her community in Sarnen, her home country of Switzerland, and had no sense of adventure or desire to undertake a journey to a foreign country. But obedience means giving up our own ideas about what is possible, what we can do or want to do. In obedience we accept that sometimes we cannot live according to our own judgment.

In cenobitic, monastic life this often means taking jobs or assignments that we don’t want, don’t understand, and don’t think we can do. In families it may mean sacrificing for a spouse or children, doing what you would rather not do, sacrificing for the good of another. In obedience we give up that very fundamental sense of autonomy, that sense that we are in control of our own lives, and we submit to the choices that are not what we want, the choices we would not have made, all for a greater good.

When this obedience happens in faith, in a healthy community or family, it can become the source of miracles. In obedience we get out of the way and allow God to act in us and through us in the world. We no longer limit God to our vision of what is possible or what makes sense to us. In healthy obedience dried sticks blossom, a scared young woman plants the seeds of monasticism in a new land. When Abbess Pia and Sr. Rut Maria visited us this month we all had the chance to eat the fruit of obedience of a woman from 1882 whom none of us ever knew.

As we face difficult decisions in our lives, as we are called upon to do impossible things, when we feel like we are watering dried sticks, perhaps we need to think of the people who may eat the fruit of our obedience more than one hundred years from now.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Scholastica: The Heroine's Journey


I suppose it was an odd place for an epiphany. It was July in an abandoned Church just outside of Norcia, Italy. The Church is named after Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict. According to tradition it is the site of Scholastica’s first monastery, on the site of their families country estate. About thirty of us Benedictine sisters from three continents stood under the old frescoes with scenes from the life of Benedict and Scholastica and renewed our monastic profession. As we had many years or only a few years before we recited the Suscipe, the Psalm verse used in the profession ceremony: “Receive me O Lord as you have promised that I may live, and disappoint me not in my hope.” We then promised once more to live our lives according to obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic way of life.

In this place past and present merged for a moment. All of us represented the daughters of Scholastica, part of the company of women who have lived monastic life, like Scholastica, usually in humble, unsung, out of the way places for over 1500 years. We were a living manifestation of the always tenacious, often hidden face of women’s monasticism, monasticism that is about faithfulness to God in daily life.

The story of Benedict and Scholastica is perhaps the archetypal story of men’s and women’s monasticism. All we know of both Benedict and Scholastica comes from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, written not long after Benedict’s death in 547. In this story Benedict embodies many of the classic elements of the hero’s journey. After his birth to a wealthy family he goes to study in Rome. Repelled by the decadence of the city he flees to live a solitary, holy life in a cave in Subiaco. He is then asked to help a small community of monks who proceed to try to poison them when he tries to reform them. He leaves but again is called to be the founder of a new type of monasticism and to write the Rule that monastics follow to this day.

Of Scholastica we know much less. She was consecrated as a virgin from childhood, living an enclosed life in community. In a famous section of Gregory’s life of Benedict she is presented as the one who knows the value of love over law. In this story Benedict and Scholastica were meeting together as they did once a year to discuss the spiritual life. When evening came Benedict insisted he had to leave, he could not stay out all night in violation of his own rule. He refused when Scholastica insisted he stay. Scholastica then lowered her head, cried and began to pray. As soon as she did a severe thunderstorm erupted, so severe that Benedict had to stay. Benedict rebuked her saying: "God forgive you, what have you done?" She answered him, "I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me; I have desired it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition. Therefore if you can now depart, in God's name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone." And after that they spent the night in holy conversation.

So this is Scholastica, a woman who lived a life centered on God from childhood. She knew the value of relationships and the need to nurture relationships on a regular basis. She understood the need for rules and structures but she also knew rules and structures have to be flexible, they bend to suit the needs of people, people are not bent to serve the needs of the rule. Scholastica knew the power of prayer accompanied by tears and rooted in love. Scholastica may not have been the one who wrote the Rule, but she is the one who understood and lived its essence.

The story of Scholastica is the story of women’s monasticism. It is not the hero’s journey like Benedict, full of escapades in exotic places, battling the external forces of evil and returning triumphant. The story of Scholastica is the heroine’s journey, the women’s journey to holiness. Women’s lives are seldom documented and when they are they are usually the story of a more domestic holiness, the holiness of the ordinary, not the extraordinary.

Scholastica’s journey was one of experiencing ever deeper levels of holiness in the ordinariness of everyday life. She and her sisters probably did not travel much, no one thought their way of life important enough to document. Her life and the lives of most monastic women through history were lives in which domesticity begins to take on the divine. In the daily round of meals, prayer and work the ordinary is sanctified and becomes the means of transformation. God is present in the daily service of one another, in the common prayers. The daily grinding of personalities, weaknesses, bearing one another’s burdens becomes the raw material of transformation, the slow, un-ending process of being remade into the image and likeness of Christ.

Most of the monastic daughters of Scholastica have lived unknown lives. Their feats have not been extraordinary, seemingly they haven’t changed the world through lives of devotion in hidden places. But what they knew and what they lived is the reality that monastic life is about love, it is about relationships, it is about being transformed in our desire for God as we live lives grounded in the sanctity of the ordinary. Scholastica is a heroine for our day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Did Benedict Go To Meetings?


Did Benedict go to meetings? I’ve always liked to think that in the Golden Age of monasticism, when Benedict was formulating his Rule, monastic life operated smoothly without the modern, interminable round of meetings, committees and consultations. I have a vision of a place where monks were able to spend uninterrupted time in prayer and focused on the spiritual life. In other words a vision far removed from the daily reality of modern monastic life.

The problem with this vision is that there are shadows of meetings lurking everywhere in the Rule. Much of the Rule is concerned with very nitty-gritty day to day concerns. How much food to serve in the lunch line; what makes a good business manager; what to do with guests; how to order the daily schedule are all topics that comprise multiple chapters. For many modern readers these chapters are the Benedictine equivalent of the “fly-over states.” Just as many people only know the center of our country while flying from one coast to another, in the same way many people in search of Benedictine spirituality tend to skip over the chapters on daily life. The reality is that some of the most profound insights are contained in these chapters and are probably the result of innumerable meetings and committees.

Benedict knew that life more often flounders on the details than on the big issues. Monks, whether in the 6th century or the 21st are more likely to grumble and murmur about the food and the housekeeping schedule than about the fine points of theology. The fine points of theology may require great Church councils but monastic life requires meetings.

In our monastery one of the forms this takes is the weekly “house meeting.” This is a weekly gathering of the whole community for announcements, celebrations, discussion and input. After big events we discuss what went well and what could be improved. Everyone has a chance to share her wisdom and input on topics that may seem small but loom large such as the songs sung at liturgy, decoration of the dining room and care of guests. Announcements and reminders keep the small issues from becoming great issues. Turn off the map light in the car so that the next person doesn’t come out to a car with a dead battery. How late can someone take a bath without disturbing those early to bed? Thanks are offered for the many people who turned out to can one hundred boxes of donated fruit. These are little reminders, little issues and little thanks, but taken together they are the stuff that makes community thrive or fail.

Other meetings only involve a few people. Benedict understood that a group of people functions best if one person, guided by a Rule, is the final authority. But he also knew that collaboration is essential for people to live together and grow in holiness and maturity. And so consultation is continuous: discussions, opinion seeking, listening and feedback are always happening. It is a slow, ponderous process. It is easy to remember the quip: “meetings are places where minutes are taken and hours are wasted.” But even in the irritation and seeming interminable nature of meetings Benedict’s wisdom is reflected. We don’t go to God as individuals, we journey all together to everlasting life, and if we are to make this journey together in love we will probably have to have meetings to make sure we are traveling together with no one running ahead and no one left behind.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome to the Next 100 Years!


Welcome to the Next Hundred Years!
That is what we feel like today at the Monastery after our great Grand Finale. We had about 350 people with us to celebrate in the chapel with a special Mass and then a reception out on the lawn. We had a sizable representation from the oblate community who came to help us celebrate and work.

Sisters from Sarnen
It was a very blessed day and week. It started on Wednesday when we greeted two of our sisters from San Andreas Kloster, Sarnen, Switzerland. It was from San Andreas that in 1882 three sisters journeyed to America to start a new foundation in the United States. This week, to celebrate 100 years in Cottonwood, Abbess Pia and Sr. Rut-Maria travelled here to join us. As they drove up we rolled out a red “carpet,” rang all the chapel bells and everyone in the community gathered in front of the main entrance to welcome them. We sang Edelweiss, Maria Zu Lieben and Sr. Clarissa welcomed them with a short speech in German.

During this week we have given our Swiss cousins lots of chances to experience our beautiful countryside including the Salmon River breaks, Heart of the Monster in Kamiah, Tolo Lake, Whitebird Hill and numerous other places. They have been delightful company, very appreciative and grateful for their time here and the chance to share our grand celebration.

Former Sisters Reunion
As part of our Centennial we have had lots of reunions. Recently there was a special day for former members of the oblate community to come and celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the oblate program as well as the Monastery Centennial. On Saturday we had a special day for former sisters, or as Clarissa called them “forever friends.” About two dozen former members, most of whom left in the 70’s through the 90’s, joined us for this special event.

A very touching highlight of their presence came on Sunday morning for prayer (which a certain unnamed oblate coordinator had forgotten she was in charge of). At the end of prayer after an introduction by Sr. Clarissa all the former members gathered in the center of chapel and two of them spoke very movingly about how much the St. Gertrude’s community still means to them and how they continue to feel a part of St. Gertrude’s. At their request they and the whole community sang “Dear Convent Home” and then the former sisters blessed the current community. It was definitely a three hankie event for almost everyone.

Centennial Mass
The Centennial Celebration Mass was yesterday in the chapel and the chapel was full but not packed and we were very happy so many people came to celebrate with us. Many of the oblate community were a great presence and help in making the event a success.

The Catholic Bishop of Boise, Mike Driscoll was our celebrant. The entrance procession was quite a site. Our former prioresses, Srs. Mary Marge and Mary Kay were candle bearers. The book of the Gospels was held by our oldest member of the monastery, Sr. Mercedes Martzen, accompanied by our newest member, Nov. Cindy Harris. They were also accompanied by our Swiss sisters, our brother monks, the abbots and former abbots from Jerome, St. Martin’s in Lacey, Washington, and Mt. Angel in Oregon who were concelebrants. Fr. Meinrad Schallberger, our former chaplain, was master of ceremonies. Several local clergy also joined us to celebrate. Sr. Clarissa joined the bishop and celebrants in the sanctuary. At several points the bishop incensed the assembled people and the book of the Gospel. In the back of the sanctuary members of two local choirs as well as our monastic schola were arranged and provided wonderful music for the celebration. With the vestments, habits, beautiful dresses, large bouquets of garden flowers, chapel decorations, choir accompaniment and wafting incense it was a very impressive set of sights, sounds and smells!

During the Mass our Swiss sisters decorated the altar. Then descendants of the John and Gertrude Uhlenkott family, who gave us the original land on which the monastery is built, brought up the gifts. These included Sr. Agnes Reichlin (daughter of Agnes Uhlenkott) and Sr. Emagene Warren (daughter of Vincent Uhlenkott).

After the Mass there was a reception on the front lawn with a special cake and a chance for everyone to visit and help us celebrate the great event.

Perhaps the best way to close the description is to quote the words of Sr. Clarissa in the booklet for Mass: “My hope is that the vision, heroism, ingenuity, faith and spirit of service that inspired our foremothers will continue to live and burn within us.” We can only add: Amen, may it be so!

Centennial and Conversatio
As I reflect on the incredible reality that the Monastery of St. Gertrude has been in Cottonwood for 100 years it seems that the key to understanding our perseverance is the idea of conversatio. In his Rule Benedict says that monastics are to profess “conversatio.” We translate this to mean “fidelity to the monastic way of life.” In other words every aspect of our life will be about seeking God in monastic life. We will persevere with the same group of people learning to bear one another’s burdens and learning what it means to have others bear ours. We will be obedient to the will of God as expressed in the Rule and the community even when it means going where we would rather not go and doing things we can’t even imagine we are capable of. We will do this day in and day out, year after year until death when we finally join our sisters on the hill who also professed conversatio and now are interceding for us as we struggle on this way.

None of the sisters who left Sarnen for America or even left Colton for Cottonwood is still with us. But their presence, their memory, their witness of living conversatio stays with us. They had no idea what the community would look like in 100 years or even if it would last 100 years. As we look forward we have no idea what the community will look like or even whether it will be here in 100 years. But like our foremothers we know that conversatio isn’t about achievement it is about faithfulness and love. Out of love for God, for one another, for the Church and the world we will persevere, faithful to the Gospel lived out in monastic life.

Whether anyone will be celebrating our bicentennial isn’t important. What is important is that all of us, cenobitic and oblate, our supporters, friends, members past, present and to come, have lived our lives of faith and integrity knowing that together “we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

As we give thanks for 100 years “at home in Idaho” we give special thanks for all who journey with us, for the great gift of their presence in our community.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Glorious and Triumphant, Humble and Enduring


To the casual tourist or even pilgrim at first glance Rome seems to be a giant museum of the baroque period. It almost seems as if there were a huge building spree in the 16th and 17th century and then somehow all the artists and architects collapsed from exhaustion and went elsewhere. It looks like there is a church on every corner in Rome, or even two to a corner, all filled chockablock with dense baroque art and architecture. In every church every inch of space is filled, literally from floor to ceiling with the intense, romantic art that reflects the values, taste and concerns of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation era. In the midst of this abundance of riches I began to feel as if I had entered into some parallel universe, a living history museum from the mid-17th century. Rome can easily seem like a singular monument to the phenomenon of the Church glorious and triumphant.

But gradually I noticed something else, evidence of the Church humble and enduring. In the nooks and crannies of numerous baroque monuments were testimonies to a deep, powerful contemporary faith that speaks to the needs of our hurting world. I saw this in little glimpses of the Catholic faith living and active in the midst of so much history.

* In a church with mosaics dating to the 6th century a couple was celebrating their marriage while tourists and pilgrims wandered in and out taking pictures as they quietly entered into the sacramental commitment of a lifetime.

* One Saturday evening several of us went to an English liturgy in the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence. We were a rather motley crew of hot, sweaty, English speaking travelers celebrating the sacred mysteries at the site known to Michelangelo, Giotto, Donatello and others, as we celebrated the same sacrament that they did.

* In the Church of San Ambrogio in Rome, next to the relics of St. Polycarp, martyr of the 2nd century, was a small shrine to a contemporary, African, Trappist monk who has been beatified. There are still saints being made and honored in our midst.

* In a church that dates to one of the earliest “house churches” of Rome, which displayed a relic of pillar against which Jesus was scourged, the immigrant Filipino community in Rome has a vibrant, faith-filled parish.

* One evening we went to a church which also boasts a lineage from the earliest centuries and whose outside walls were lined with bits of marble inscriptions dating to the 4th century. Inside we went to a packed Vespers service of the San Egidio community, a contemporary faith community dedicated to helping the urban poor.

The monuments and history of Rome are amazing to see and a great way to appreciate the breadth and depth of our faith. But it is also challenging to see that our faith is not just the stuff of history and monuments, it is living, active, challenging and humbling to all of us who continue to strive to live the way Jesus called us to live.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Unexpected Encounters


Perhaps as Christians one of the most important questions we need to keep asking ourselves every day is where is Christ in our daily life? It is especially important because I’m not sure the answer is always obvious.

To be in Rome is to see how so many people have put so much incredible work and resources into building, decorating and maintaining many, many magnificent churches. Huge basilicas and even smaller neighborhood churches are intense displays of florid baroque art and architecture, the fruit of many people’s attempt to demonstrate their love of God and the Church.

It was a great gift to be part of many liturgies in these churches, to celebrate the presence of God in these places of beauty and history.

But in the midst of such beauty and expressions of worship another experience kept coming back to me and hasn’t left me alone.

We were staying with the Missionary Benedictine sisters in Rome a little way away from the more touristy areas. We would occasionally have afternoons off and I would walk along the bus route to a commercial area a few miles away. At one particular rather deserted intersection I was surprised to see a couple of women who appeared to be African. They were standing in this little used spot on the road, near some bushes, one with a parasol and both wearing clothes that would get them turned away from most churches. I admit I’ve been in Cottonwood a little too long because it took me a while to figure out that they were prostitutes.

I never spoke to them, I suspect we had neither a common language nor a common reality, so I simply smiled every time I walked by.

But the experience hasn’t left me. Is Christ present in the glorious, baroque churches and liturgies of Rome? Absolutely. But is he also present in the midst of women who are far from their homes with no options to support themselves except on street corners? Absolutely. Christ is present in the least of people as well as in the greatest buildings and liturgies.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. Perhaps just that the real presence of Christ is not only in the sacrifice of the Mass but also in the most rejected and despised of society. Jesus didn’t just invite the nice people to his table, he invited all of us, and none of us is worthy. An unexpected encounter on a street corner in Rome was a good reminder for me to ask myself where I am seeing Christ and who I am inviting to my table.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

On These Bones


I had always wondered about Catholics and their obsession with relics, little bits of saints bones in elaborate containers which they seemed to worship. It was rather startling then, or perhaps simply the comeuppance of a former Baptist, that one of the most powerful experiences in Rome was visiting the “Scavi,” the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica that recently unearthed the original burial place of Peter.

Catholics have long claimed that Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” meant that the person of Peter was the foundation of the Church. Protestants of course have hastened to differ, asserting that it is Peter’s faith that Jesus was referring to. After seeing the excavations and hearing the story of how Peter was killed and where he was buried, it is clear that the distinction isn’t all that important.

As part of our pilgrimage in Rome we received a special tour of the excavations that are quite literally underneath the massive St. Peter’s Basilica. We descended several stories underneath the ground and heard how, beginning in the late 1930’s and continuing through the 1950’s Pope Pius XII started a program to excavate the earliest site of the tomb of St. Peter. According to tradition Peter was brought to Rome, imprisoned and finally crucified upside down at the Circus of Nero, the present site of St. Peter’s Square.

We walked through an ancient necropolis, a city of the dead, with marble sacrophogi that contained the remains of people from the first centuries of the Church, both pagan and Christian. We heard the stories of how the first Christians hurriedly buried the remains of Peter and carefully, unobtrusively marked the spot where he lay so that his remains could be venerated by believers and not destroyed by the officials of the Empire. By the time of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity the first of several churches were built over the place where Peter was buried. Over the centuries and the building of ever more ornate churches the site of the original tomb was lost. After the 20th century excavations, layers and layers beneath the current main altar of the Basilica, remnants of the bones of Peter were discovered and reinterred in a clear container so that a glimpse of Peter’s relics can be seen.

This man and his faith is the foundation of our Church. A man of deep contradictions Peter left everything to follow Christ and then denied him not once but three times. This is the man who impulsively began following Jesus walking across the water and then began to sink in his doubt. Peter seems to be absent from the cross and then doesn’t understand the meaning of the empty tomb And yet this same Peter is the one who preaches the Gospel to the world and finally so threatens the power of the Roman Empire that he is brought to Rome in shackles to be crucified in the heart of the Empire.

The story of Peter is a story of transformation and redemption. It is the story of an ordinary, impulsive and sometimes cowardly man who kept picking himself up and going forward in faith. His is the story of a very unlikely person chosen by God to do extraordinary things. The story of Peter is of a man who gave up his very life for God. Peter’s story is our story. On Peter, this rickety, unstable and unexpected foundation, the power of the greatest empire known to history stumbled and fell. On this foundation we stand, just as limited and human, cowardly and clueless as Peter, and like Peter we are building a new reality, a new form of power which is the Reign of God.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rome: Anxiety and Thanksgiving


Anxiety always seems like a good thing to escape from, but sometimes it may be a doorway to thanksgiving. In the incredibly hectic days since I returned from my Roman pilgrimage I’ve been trying to snatch moments to makes sense of the experience.

One characteristic of the trip both prior to and during my time in Italy, was anxiety. I’m not an adventurous, seasoned traveler. I’m a wimpy, fearful traveler. As a result I had a long, neurotic list of things I was worried about. I would lose my money and passport. I would get hopelessly lost in overseas airports. I wouldn’t be able to find a sufficient supply of chocolate and other scenarios too horrible to contemplate.

But I discovered that pilgrimage is about turning anxieties into blessings.
Being a pilgrim requires a healthy dose of humility: an awareness that you really don’t have a clue what you are doing and like Blanche DuBois you “always depend on the kindness of strangers.” Traveling takes lots of patience with yourself and with everyone else who is probably just as tired, sweaty and confused as you are.
And so I spent a lot of time pointing, smiling and (trying) to say “grazie.” I was at the mercy of people who spent most of their days having to deal graciously with clueless tourists, many of whom couldn’t seem to figure out why things weren’t exactly the way they were at home and why everyone in Italy didn’t speak English.

In my newly humble state I came to appreciate an infinite array of Italian gelato (ice cream) sellers who understood “chocolate” and “due euro” quite well. I appreciated a very Italian parade of efficient Vatican ushers who herded the cats/tourists to the proper places in the Vatican with great aplomb and panache. Even the Italian trains were amazingly efficient and the Italians demonstrated admirable sangfroid in the face of being squashed together with hot, sweaty people trying to decipher schedules, stops, tracks and whether there would be enough time to get some gelato (do you detect a pattern here?)

Perhaps the key to the transformation of anxieties into blessings is realizing that we aren’t in control. Most of us have “control issues,” we like to know what is going on, we want to feel like we can predict and decide what is going to happen in our life; anything less results in stress and panic. The perennial joke of course is that the key to spiritual growth is letting go of control and making room for listening and responding to God. Being on pilgrimage is a remedial, crash-course in this fundamental lesson. When you are in a strange place, off-balance and way out of your comfort zone it is time to take a deep breath and trust that God is present.

And then when we come home the trick is to continue to take deep breaths and remember what we learned on pilgrimage.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pilgrimage: When Roaming About is Good for the Soul



"Something to bring back to show
you have been there: a lock of God's
hair, stolen from him while he was
asleep; a photograph of the garden
of the spirit. As has been said,
the point of traveling is not
to arrive but to return home
laden with pollen you shall work up
into honey the mind feeds on.
R. J. Thomas

What kind of honey will this pilgrimage produce? I have been home from Rome for a week and a half, a very intense, busy time of volunteers and meetings. But I also have the sense of still having a foot in an alternative time and reality, carrying the gifts of a sacred time and space.

Benedict frowns on travel for his monks, at least travel without permission. He designs the monastery to be self-contained. “Then there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because this is not at all good for their souls.” (RB 66:7) I suppose for all of us an aimless “roaming,” born of an inner antsiness, a desire to stave off boredom or simply be titillated by some new and unique thing, is indeed bad for our souls. Pilgrimage though is an inner stretching to see God in new ways and to be open to God doing the work of transformation in us. I think Benedict would appreciate this kind of travel.

To be in Rome and visit the sites of Benedict and Scholastica was an experience of standing on the shoulders of giants. We owe our faith to the men and women before us who lived, suffered, rejoiced and died with the integrity of their beliefs and search for God. It is humbling to visit sites of people who gave up everything for their faith, who paved the way for us who now walk easily on the road of faith.

In the company of about thirty other Benedictine women from North America, Australia and India I had a chance to appreciate the great heritage we have as Christians, as sons and daughters of Benedict. I came back with a sense of both gratitude and caution. Seeing multiple, rich, elaborate churches is a caution that Jesus’ radical option for the poor and marginalized cannot and should not be buried in baroque grandiosity. I also experienced deep gratitude that the church, this often limping and clueless collection of pilgrims on the way, is still struggling mightily to live out Jesus’ call to bring about the Reign of God in the world.

In the days ahead I will share more specific stories of the roaming (Rome-in) about that was good for my soul.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Benedictine pilgrimages and other oxymorons


Can Benedictines go on pilgrimage? I mean we profess stability, remaining with the same community all our life. What business do we have galivanting all over the globe? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, mostly because I am leaving for Rome on Wednesday for the “Benedictine Renewal Program,” a month of classes and sight-seeing centered on Benedictine and monastic topics. It is an incredible opportunity for a once in a lifetime experience and I want to enter into it deeply and be open to the gifts it will bring.

One way to do this is to see the trip as a pilgrimage. This has been a stretch since frankly the idea of pilgrimage has never made a lot of sense to me. What does going somewhere have to do with faith? Is God only present in certain supposedly sacred places? Traveling can be fun, enriching, challenging, but faith enhancing? I’ve never really been able to see it.

Of course my doubts are reinforced by the fact Benedict isn’t big on monks going anywhere. The Rule is deeply distrustful of any kind of travel as harmful to the soul. Benedict wants the monastery to be entirely self-contained so that monks aren’t wandering around seeing and doing things that will get them in trouble and lead away from God.

As if all this weren’t enough I am not exactly the world’s most adventuresome spirit. The idea of going off by myself, not knowing anyone, to a place where I don’t speak the language, from tiny little Cottonwood to the megalopolis of Rome, tends to make me queasy. I tend to prefer my adventures to be of the intellectual sort, not the kind that involve lost luggage, pickpockets, foreign currencies, and the skin problem known as “Rome rot.”

So all in all I am not exactly the perfect candidate for a pilgrimage.
But lately I have been reading a lot about pilgrimage (some of us have to understand things before we can experience them) and it is starting to make sense. Pilgrimage is a journey with many levels; it is simply the human journey of faith in an explicit tangible form. All of us are on the journey of faith, traveling toward the sacred.

To go on pilgrimage is to let go of control, of the known and comfortable, and to listen to the voice of God that beckons us to a new destination, to a place of transformation. In going on a pilgrimage to sacred places we are saying that our faith is a journey that requires us to face challenges, to go in the company of other seekers, to ask for help to find our destination. In other words going on pilgrimage is like living in community with addition of blisters and a passport.

So I am more or less ready, I’ve got my passport and tennis shoes, camera and guidebook and I’ll be setting off. I am going with three main goals: to be open and receptive to all that the trip offers recognizing God’s presence in everything and everyone; to give thanks for my Benedictine forebears and to remember that sometimes the journey is the destination.

In a month I’ll be back, with plenty of stories and pictures and when I am back the pilgrimage will continue in the company of this motley crew of pilgrims who live in the same place and whose pilgrimage is the on-going, interior journey toward transformation.

(I probably won't have internet access in Rome. Check back after July 15 for new posts and pictures!)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost: Communication Transformed by Fire


The feast of Pentecost was celebrated in great style here at the Monastery today. At Morning Prayer and Mass there seemed to be a sea of red blouses and skirts, a great visual allusion to the tongues of fire from Acts. In the chapel streamers were hung from ceiling, bright blues, greens, yellow, orange and red. As the breeze came up they swayed gently and reminded us that the Spirit still moves in our midst. Red flowers and vestments provided reminders of the first tongues that gave birth to the Church. The picture was completed by the “Holy Spirit” picture above the altar, the painting based on a picture from the Hubble telescope, the shape of a dove hovering over the cosmos. Tonight at Evening Praise we had statio. The community slowly processed in while Sr. Cecile played the theme from “Chariots of Fire” and we bowed to the presence of Christ in the tabernacle and to the presence of Christ in one another before going to our places.

The first Pentecost was a marked by diversity as people from all nations had gathered in Jerusalem. Our chapel and dining room this morning echoed the feast we celebrate. I don’t think we had any Parthians, Medes or Eliamites, but we had a great diversity of visitors, retreatants, volunteers and oblates. We came from the Prairie, from Seattle, from Boise, from Central Washington, we were Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists and others. Together we celebrated the Spirit that continues to blow in our midst bringing new life.

It struck me that one way to read about the account of Pentecost in Acts is to say it was about communication, communication that is birthed in transforming fire. When the Spirit came upon the apostles they were able to communicate with the diverse, multi-lingual group that had gathered in Jerusalem and share the Good News of Christ. This wasn’t simple or easy communication it required courage, compassion, honesty and trust.

In the cenobitic community we are looking at how we communicate, how we can be honest with one another about the things that really matter. Perhaps the example of Pentecost can be our guide and a guide for all who seek to be Church.

It took courage to speak on that day in the Upper Room. Believers in the resurrection were a minority, what they experienced seemed bizarre and impossible to many people, threatening and frightening to others. The disciples risked ridicule and punishment for speaking their truth and sharing the word. Speaking to the diverse crowd required trust, trust that the Spirit would give them the words to speak and allow the listeners to truly hear what was being said. It required honesty to jolt people awake with the news that in the coming of Christ their safe, known world was being turned upside down. The disciples needed compassion to share their life changing news that would shake each person’s safe and comfortable world.

So this is how we are called to communicate in our communities today. It is the Spirit that gives us the courage and allows us to speak truth to power. Only through the Spirit moving in our midst can we go forth in courage to say the difficult things that need to be said, to one another, to institutions of power. In the Spirit we speak with honesty. We are empowered to name the places in ourselves and others that are broken and need healing. When we speak in the Spirit we can speak the hard things, necessary things with compassion. When we are grounded in the one Spirit and we speak out of love and we hear one another in love and trust.

We don’t know the whole story of the first Pentecost. In Scripture we are given only the smallest glimpse of the communication that spread the fire of the Spirit burning through the world to create the Church, to animate believers and transform our world. As we celebrate this day let us call ourselves to speak in the Spirit, to communicate with compassion, honesty, courage and truth. Let us give thanks for tongues of fire that are still blazing in our midst bringing about the Reign of God.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Benedictine Balance, The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus


The idea that Benedictine spirituality is all about balance seems to be a pervasive one. I frequently hear people say it is why they are interested in coming to the monastery, in learning more about Benedict and applying Benedictine principles to their lives. It is a very admirable goal in our world characterized by frenzy and headlong activity.

I think there is one problem with it. (Warning: this is where I am about to commit Benedictine heresy, the fainthearted among you may want to quit reading at this point and skip to something safer.) After having read and tried to live the Rule of Benedict for a number of years I think the idea of Benedictine balance is a lot like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. It is a wonderful idea that reflects our deepest needs and desires but is ultimately a myth.

Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny speak to our childlike desire for the free gifts, the chocolate eggs and new bicycles that we want so badly. The idea of Benedictine balance speaks to our deep, childlike desire for a life that does not seem to involve intense, unending busyness, a life in which our desire for God is a significant part, not a piece that is shoehorned in-between meetings and obligations. This idea of balance seems to be based on an ideal of a life that would be equal parts work, family, leisure and God. It is not a bad ideal. But I don’t think it is Benedict’s ideal.

For Benedict monastic life is not about achieving a balance of various activities it is about a life in which absolutely everything is centered on God. God is not a significant part of monastic life, a primary priority in a hectic schedule, but monastic life is completely, absolutely, unequivocally focused on God. Work is what monks have to do to support themselves to live a life focused solely on God. Everything in the Rule, everything in monastic life, is about God, how you handle the dishes, how you sleep, how you relate with one another, how you pray and how you eat your food are all about the journey toward God, the ultimate journey to eternal life.

This is usually where people start to despair. They think that if this is the case then Benedictine spirituality cannot speak to ordinary people with families and demanding jobs and all sorts of responsibilities in “the world.” Clearly this kind of total focus on God can only happen in a monastery where all the structures are oriented toward this full-time, wholehearted, immersion in God.

I don’t think that this the only or even the easy answer to the “balance” problem. It is quite possible, even easy to live in a monastery and not be focused on God. It is also quite possible to live an ordinary, hectic life in “the world” and be a true monastic. Perhaps the key is not trying to achieve “balance” as if our search for God were a task on our “to-do” list that we can check off. If I do a certain amount of prayer, lectio and spiritual activities then I have achieved a balanced life. Our search for God may instead be a matter of cultivating mindfulness, awareness of God in all that we do, in all that we are.

This mindfulness is implicit in the Rule. Benedict encourages his monks to be aware of the presence of the sacred in all things, in tools and utensils, in the demands of the sick, in the disruptive visitors. Benedict encourages an awareness of God in all activities. He reminds his monks that the life of faith is about service of God and others in all things. Benedict encourages his monks to make prayer something that not only happens at set times but is a practice of dwelling deeply in God’s word throughout the day.

The Benedictine life is one that structures everything so that God can come first. Even in a monastery that means the hard work of learning to see things differently. We can decide whether or not God will be present in the chores, the irritations, the demands and challenges of the day. Each of us will decide whether our errands, our work, our relationships will reflect God and faith or whether they will be things and activities that are somehow separate from our desire for God.

Striving, running, climbing and making progress are all images that permeate Benedict’s Rule. Being a wise abbot Benedict knew that all of us fallible followers of his wisdom wouldn’t be able to instantly see God in all things at all times. In our overwhelming busyness and distraction we start by longing for balance, for a little more time and space for God and prayer. This is a wonderful goal but Benedictine wisdom challenges us to go deeper. To be Benedictine, to be Christian! is to make God part of the air you breath, the presence you see in everyone you meet, the coming of God’s reign the objective in every task you do. Don’t strive to make God an important part of your life, run your life’s journey striving to make God present in all that you do, in all that you are, that God may be as close as your breath.