Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Murmuring in the desert

“Permission to speak should seldom be granted…” RB 6:3

The journey of a monastic community echoes that of the Israelite journey of Exodus. At first that image doesn’t seem to make sense. Benedictine monastics stay put, they even profess stability, a promise to stay in the same place with the same group of people, for life. Monks haven’t left oppression, they have already received God’s commandments. But on closer inspection the journeys are very similar. Our journey as monastics is an interior exodus from slavery to freedom through the desert of our hearts as we journey to the Promised Land of dwelling in God’s presence.

For most of the Israelites of the Exodus their journey would last until death, just as ours does. Like the Israelite’s, we too frequently find the journey to be long, interminable and confusing. We also wonder whether we are just wandering, whether our leaders have any clue about our destination and whether we would be better off back in our own personal Egypt’s.

And like the Israelites in the desert we murmur. We murmur about the food, about the water, about the destination, about the directions and about this unseen God who seems to delight in ambiguous maps, unclear directions and difficult routes. But perhaps most of all we murmur about our fellow travelers on this journey.

This is probably the most insidious murmuring of all; it is perhaps the real reason why most of the Israelites did not live to see the Promised Land. Forty years in the desert, forty years of wandering and learning to trust their doubting, stuttering leader and unseen God of cloud and fire should have forged them as community. Together they were walking into destiny, into God’s promise. But instead they murmured.

Instead of words that would cement a common destiny for their community their words were acid, dissolving fragile ties of trust and hope. Faith was a slow growing flower in the dryness of the desert. The God of their ancestors was long forgotten, the prince-murderer was a strange discomfiting prophet. The harsh dryness of the landscape was mirrored in the heart of the people. Faith and hope found little water. It would take very little to stomp the tender growth of promise.
“What God is this who can’t even give us water?” “We want real food, not this miserable, plain stuff that falls from the sky.” “What kind of leader is this who cannot even talk to us?” “Let us return to Egypt, let us die in a place that we know!” The acid words etched insidiously, drop by drop on the foundation of new life. The words came easily, naturally, they flowed and rolled without effort even as they consumed and destroyed.

The same words flow and roll from our mouths as we too journey together to the promised land, to everlasting life. It isn’t even the big issues that trigger the murmuring, it is the never ending parade of small grievances, petty irritations, numerous tiny scratches to the psyche as we walk through the brambles of community life. Someone is clearly not doing her share of the common work. Someone is chronically disapproving and grumpy. One is bossy, another is oblivious. Dishes are put away incorrectly and common areas aren’t cleaned. People are out of synch at prayer and vegetables are overcooked at dinner.

Most of us don’t even have an Egypt to long to return to. We just find ourselves dwelling in a twilight of murmuring discontent. God is not seen in this twilight, it is neither day nor dark but a gray zone of never being entirely happy or faithful. It is easy to subsist here, our spiritual inertia pulls us down and our feet our made of lead. The difficulties are easy to see and the joys hard to remember.

It takes awareness not to murmur, being awake and mindful of everything we say and what comes heedlessly out our mouths. What is broken by a casual, destructive word is not easily fixed by a flood of repairing words. In community murmuring words form a sticky, stubborn grime on our souls and psyches. We easily become the white-washed tombs of the Pharisees, we paint over the veneer of our relationships with smiles and nice words but underneath the murmuring grime accumulates and sticks through the years of heedless comments made and heard. Small slights, catty comments, rare outbursts, petty jealousies adhere and shape our perceptions of ourselves and others. Years go by until we are unable to see ourselves or our sisters as marvelous reflections of God’s love. We see only the destruction that is the result of the grime and acid of murmuring.

Benedict seems to have known very well about this insidious murmuring and its affect on community. There are twelve references to murmuring in his short Rule and Benedict reserves serious punishment for those found guilty of this great “evil.” Perhaps the wisdom of treating murmuring as a serious offense is a form of “tough love” we would do well to revisit.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What Happened the Day After the Resurrection?

What happened the day after the resurrection? The day after the world had turned inside out, when death no longer reigned, when God became present and we touched his hands. On that same day the same sun came up as it had yesterday morning when we lay in the dark shards of our despair. On each day, when the world ended and when it began anew, it was the same sun, the same birds, the same creaking bones and growling stomachs and sour morning breath of the disciples.

What happened on day 732,920 after the resurrection? The same sun came up as it had the morning when the world was turned inside out. It was the same sun, the same birds, the same creaking bones and growling stomachs and sour morning breath of the disciples.

This is monastic life. Life lived on two levels. It is life centered on Christ, centered in the earth shattering news of the resurrection, in the paschal mystery that repeats in our little, insignificant and unnoticed lives. Every day is an extraordinary realization that God is alive and in our midst and dwells with us. And every day is also like the one gone before, stretching into infinity, an endless horizon of ordinariness and monotony.

People ask, “What do you do all day in the monastery?” We live simultaneously at two extremes of the human condition. It is an ordinary life of living with the same people you like or don’t like, day after day, year after year. It is an endless round of chores and work and meetings that repeat until you no longer have the capacity to do chores or work or go to meetings. But is also a life that is a call to stop, listen, be aware. Here, now, today is the day after the resurrection. Death is no more. God is in our midst. Each moment is a moment of eternity, a moment of grace.

Of course it is not just our elders who suffer memory loss. The twin poles of eternity and everyday life do not have equal weight. We are always being dragged down into the inertia of forgetfulness, the fog of grayness and complacency. The same people, same routine, same surroundings grate tenaciously against our soul and blind us to the reality that every day is the day after the resurrection.

But ultimately monastic life is about creating structures that fight against the loss of wonder. Monastic life is designed to make life simple, uncomplicated and focused on God. It is not an easy life. But it is difficult for different reasons than most people would imagine. It isn’t difficult because of celibacy or lack of money or even living with so many other people not of your choosing. Monastic life is hard because it is designed to limit all our excuses for not staying focused on God. We structure our life to eliminate the “if only’s…” If only I didn’t have such a demanding job… If only my family responsibilities weren’t so great…. If only I were younger…. And each of our “if only’s” ends with saying “then I would certainly be a more spiritual person, then I would truly seek God with all my heart.”

No, you wouldn’t. When you come together in a life beyond the normal family responsibilities, without the striving of the competitive job market, a simple life without many possessions, you find new distractions, new ways to become complacent, new ways to focus on imagined difficulties and insults and ways to feel important. It is hard to live a life focused on God. We long for God as for the sun in the midst of night but shield our eyes and look away when confronted with noon-day brightness.

In monastic life we live a paradox. We live the most ordinary, unexceptional life, a life reduced to the basics in order to do the most extraordinary, to live every day like it is the day after the resurrection, the day when the world turned inside out and we finally saw that God was in our midst. But paradoxes are hard to hold. Like two magnets they are twin poles that resist coming together. We resist being able to see with new eyes, we shield our eyes from the light that threatens to blind and transform us, that burns and peels the thick skin that cannot feel the touch of God. We yearn for the easy anesthetic of the ordinary, of our comforting gray lives, our pride and control that keep us from being broken open to experience the power of God.

So people ask, “What do you do all day in the monastery?” I tell them that every day we get up, watch the same sun rise, hear the same birds sing, experience the same creaking bones and growling stomachs and sour morning breath of this motley group of disciples as we did the day before. But every day, even if just for a startling moment we realize: God is alive, in our midst, the world is made new and we along with it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Vigil: Images of Service

Our Easter Vigil service begins in darkness. In our chapel, the center of our life, our sacred space, we gather at the back and wait. Then finally comes the moment when the door opens and we see the new fire, the consuming power and presence that cuts through the darkness of yesterday’s death. From the primal fire we light a new candle. One by one each candle is lit and we sing “lumen Christi, light of Christ” and respond “Deo Gratias, Thanks be to God.” The Christ candle leads the way through our sacred space to the front, to the moment when all the lights will come on and we resurrect the “alleluia” that had been buried during the sacrifice of Lent.

Decorated with lavender banners and Easter lilies the music and words celebrate the great passage from death to life that happened this night. The son is raised, light returns to our world, life over death, hope over despair, we can collectively breathe again.

The Easter Vigil is an experience of mystery. We enter in the dark, in the reality of death, hopelessness and loss. But suddenly, somehow and somewhere, in palpable darkness that consumes with fear and the unknown, a spark is kindled and we emerge into light.

On the Easter Vigil, the holiest of nights, we celebrate Jesus who has preceded us into this night. We go into the darkness not celebrating Christ, the risen one, but Jesus of Nazareth whom we proclaim to be like us. Jesus entered into night as fully human as we are. He entered this night without some magical prescient knowledge of light but in a fully human, fully consuming awareness of being eaten alive by a darkness of abandonment.

This is the Jesus who went before us, as blind and stumbling and fearful as we are. This is the God we proclaim, who shares our experience of death. The power of Easter is not the power of easy answers known before hand, it is the power of willingly going into the unknown darkness as did Jesus. The power of Easter comes when we fully enter the reality of the incarnation. God shares our deepest human despair in order to show us the deeper hope, the deeper reality which is that death is not the end but instead we will all die in the knowledge that God has gone before us into death will accompany us into death. God fully shares our humanity in death and then transcends the limitations of our humanity in the resurrection. It is Christ who emerges from the tomb, no longer bound by human frailty but transformed, sharing the reality that we were all created to share deeply in God’s life.

The Easter Vigil is the night to celebrate the depth of this mystery, the passing from death to life. But the reality of Benedictine community, whether cenobitic community, oblate community or family life, is that together, every day we descend a little deeper into the darkness and every day we see another spark of light. A little bit of us dies as we give up our self-centeredness, our need for control, our illusion of autonomy. In turn a spark of light, a spark of the presence of God is kindled, the candle fights to catch hold and slice a hole in the darkness. As in the Easter Vigil each of us has only one small candle that is short, stubby, recycled and drippy, prone to blow out in the slightest breeze. But together in our communities of little sparks with our flat, sharp and off-key alleluias we join together in becoming the powerful new reality that Jesus has gone before us into death and leads us together into a new a creation Together we are held by Christ and in turn we hold one another as we journey into the light of the resurrection guided by the presence of many small, inadequate candles that have been lit from the one flame of Christ’s light that continues to pierce all darkness.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday – Images of Service

Here at the monastery the tables in the dining room are bare, stripped even of table clothes. We are in silence all day. Even in the morning, when we normally have silence something feels different. Things feel heavier, there isn’t the sense of energy about starting the day.

We gather in silence in the chapel for Tennebrae. We recite the Psalms and the schola will sing the Lamentations of Jeremiah. These are ancient words of profound, unfathomable loss that contain no hint of hope. While they speak of the exile of Israel to Babylon thousands of years ago, they also speak to the hopelessness of this day. To be a monastic, inside or outside the monastery, is to be part of community, our immediate community or the community of the human family. On this day, as monastics we stand in solidarity and community with all those who can see no hope, who watch helpless as any promise of new life dies before their eyes.

To truly enter into this Good Friday is to experience it as the disciples did. They did not know or understand the coming of Easter. The immediate reality of torture inflicted at the hands of cowards, bullies and those interested only in their own power was all they could see. Today we stand with them as we sing the Lamentations, as we recite the same Psalms they did that attempt to name the suffering and despair that are beyond description.

After prayer we will gather for our “community chapter.” Together all the sisters and novices will come together and each one will stand and say a stylized formula for asking forgiveness. We then promise to pray for people who are suffering in the world in union with the Passion of Jesus. We don’t ask for reconciliation with specific sisters at this time but as everyone stands we all remember the hurts, the transgressions we have committed or experienced and have a chance to silently forgive and begin again. We forgive and know that shortly we will again hurt these people we love and in monastic life we will always begin again, we will always carry the image of Jesus forgiving those who caused his death.

The silence continues through dinner and into the afternoon when we gather at 3:00 for the reading of the Passion. We gather in chapel and as soon as the clock strikes Sr. Clarissa, our prioress, enters. She is dressed in a cucula, the long, black choir robe. She walks up the center aisle and prostrates on the sanctuary before rising and beginning the service.

It took me a number of years to understand the symbolism of this action, an integral part of our Good Friday services. The prioress in a Benedictine community takes on the role of Christ. She is the one who is responsible for the members of community, she is the model of God’s love and service to the motley crew of sheep she has undertaken to protect and serve. When she comes into the sanctuary and prostrates she is showing her willingness to give all that she has, to completely surrender herself in service as did Jesus. The model of Jesus is that of self-sacrificing love, a love given freely, not out of coercion or need but in full awareness of the cost. This is the deep, difficult and profound service that our prioress is called to. In this brief moment we are called to understand this sacrifice and to commit to support her on this journey of service.

In the reading of the Passion we have a chance to hear ourselves in the narrative of loss. The Passion is a historical event but it is also an event here, today. Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago but he is also being crucified in the world when people die from hunger, war, abuse. We are equally complicit in the death of Jesus when we fail to work to keep these deaths from happening again today.

The service also includes the veneration of the cross. A very plain cross, consisting of two plain planks of wood is held up by two sisters. We come up one by one and venerate, kiss or touch the cross. In doing so we embrace the profound paradox of the cross and of this day, that only if we deeply enter this impenetrable darkness will we ever know light.

Today is a day of death and perhaps it is best that we keep from venturing prematurely into hope, into tomorrow nights vigil and our knowledge of what will happen next. Many people in the world today only know the Passion, they don’t know the hope. Perhaps we do well to spend some time today in silent solidarity with those who do not have hope. May we hold them in prayer, may we hold their hope for them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Holy Thursday – Images of Service

What does it mean to have our feet washed? In our Benedictine community we gather on the morning of Holy Thursday and the prioress, who takes the place of Christ in our community, washes the feet of the community members. Whether in a monastery chapel or church the ceremony of foot washing is a powerful witness of service. We are reminded of the deep humility of Jesus who stooped down to serve the motley, clueless group that constituted his chosen disciples.

On Holy Thursday we usually focus on the example of Jesus, how we are to emulate his servanthood, his humility, his example to his disciples. But this year I began to think about what this meant for the disciples. How did they feel having their feet washed? What did it mean to them?

We did our foot washing ceremony differently this year. Rather than have everyone come forward to have their feet washed we had a list for twelve people to sign up. It was interesting to see how that worked. People seemed very reluctant to sign up and this morning Sr. Mary was walking down the hall to recruit the last couple of people to make sure there were twelve. I was the last one she caught and I said yes before I really knew what I was saying yes to.

I’m not sure why I or any other community members didn’t immediately sign up. Perhaps we are reluctant because we always hear how we should wash the feet of others. We hear how we should be servants. We’re exhorted to be leaders who take the lowest place. But what does it mean to be the one who is served?

The reality is that it is hard to be served. Being served is nice if we are in control, if we come as the rich customers who are paying for service. But if we come as people in need, as people who cannot help themselves and have to give up their sense of control and autonomy, that is something else. When we need to be served it challenges our world view. Most of us cling very tightly to reality of being independent, taking care of ourselves, being in control of our lives. Then, in sickness, in weakness, in need, when we have to rely on others, our sense of self is shaken. We are vulnerable there are cracks in our illusion of autonomy.

Having your feet washed is a very sensual, intimate, vulnerable moment. Twelve times Sr. Clarissa, the head of our community, our leader to whom we promise obedience, carefully and lovingly took a basin and poured water and gently handled our calloused, misshapen, ticklish feet. As Sr. Clarissa knelt down and washed my feet I felt I should jump up like Peter, “wait, it isn’t supposed to work this way, wait a minute, you do so much for us I should be serving you.” Instead I had to allow my sense of order to be shattered. I couldn’t be the servant but had to allow someone to serve me in this tender, gracious way.

I think Benedict knew how being served could shake our sense of the universe. In his chapter on the kitchen servers of the week he has a special ceremony every week in which the incoming kitchen servers wash the feet of those who are ending their service. In his community everyone had to take their turn at kitchen service. This meant that in the course of a year there would be several times when you had your feet washed. In Benedict’s community you would have to submit graciously to having your feet washed by the holiest old monks. You would have to sit and be humbled to have your feet washed by the brother/sister who you intensely dislike whom you just finished criticizing. You will have your feet washed by the brother/sister who can barely handle kitchen duty anymore and this will be the last time they wash anyone’s feet. Each time you will come, sit down, and in intimate vulnerability have your feet washed.

Today, in our monastery we have the ritual of the foot washing only once a year. But if we are truly monks, inside or outside a monastery, in community, in family, we will regularly allow our world to be shattered as we allow someone to take off our shoes and gently wash our feet.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Palm Sunday and liturgical manipulation

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. Am I the only one who wants to stand up and shout “Wait! I’m not ready yet!”?

Of course part of the problem is that I always feel slightly manipulated by liturgical time. The liturgical calendar says: it is now Advent and so you will feel joyful and in awe at the coming incarnation. That’s all well and good but frequently during Advent I am exceptionally cranky about the intruding values of the world and my inability to stay focused on Advent. Then I don’t seem to be able to enter into the intended meaning of the season and which in turn makes me more cranky about having to try and match my spiritual experience to the liturgical calendar.

When Lent rolls around it isn’t the least bit easier. I tell myself I should be focusing deeply and intensely on God during these 40 days, using the opportunity for spiritual growth and prayer. But then every year the reality of daily life seems to supersede my good intentions, I get busy and focused on necessary tasks and then suddenly it is Palm Sunday and once again I feel cranky and manipulated by liturgical time. (Do you begin to see a pattern here?)

It finally occurred to me though that this artificiality, this apparent manipulation of time in the liturgical year is the point, not an unfortunate by-product. By simply setting a particular time for a particular event in salvation history and saying that everyone will celebrate at that time is a way to remind us how time and God really work.

God works in God’s own time, not in ours. God irrupts into human history, in birth, in death, in resurrection, in triumph and in tragedy, in God’s time. The events of Palm Sunday, the great triumph that with its barely noticed, menacing shadows peeking out of the corners, echoes our own life. Great events don’t always come when we want them, when we plan them or when we have time for them. They just come and interrupt our lives and make us pay attention. Good Friday will come five days after Palm Sunday whether or not we are ready because death never comes when we are ready. Death will come unexpectedly as we cling to more time or it will delay and meander and take its sweet time when we are all too ready. Good Friday will come whether we are ready or not. Then Easter will come. It will come whether or not we experience it in our lives. The great vigil of Saturday night or the breaking dawn of Sunday morning may find us smothered in the reality of the cross and it won’t matter, Easter is here, new life is here whether you can feel it or not.

The liturgical year feels artificial and manipulative because it cuts through my illusion that I am in control of my own life, even my own spiritual life. I like to assume that I can think my spiritual thoughts and have great, profound insights on my own terms which I then report to God when I am good and ready. The relentless calendar of the year reminds me this isn’t the case. God comes when God comes. God acts when God acts. Like the child in the hide and seek game God always calls out “ready or not here I come.” In hope, in despair, in promise, in challenge and call, the time is always God’s time. God’s paradox speaks when the linear, calendar time of chronos becomes the God time of kairos by reminding us that every day is the day of God’s gift not of our own agenda.