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.

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